Skip to main content Walt Kuhn: An Imaginary History of the West

Walt Kuhn: An Imaginary History of the West

October 3, 2008 - January 4, 2009

Named one of the Top 10 Art Shows of 2008 by the Denver Post

“A new exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center makes a powerful case for a reconsideration of this modernist”

“an extraordinary series”

“His zeal for the subject matter is obvious in the unashamedly romanticized vision and swashbuckling energy he brought to these depictions.”

“Don’t miss this long-overdue opportunity to see these modern masterworks.”

[Read the complete Denver Post review.]

Walt Kuhn’s series of paintings, An Imaginary History of the West, depict the artist’s romanticized vision of the American West, formed largely from the Western novels that had fascinated him since childhood. His colorful scenes of barroom fights, Indian battles, and mining camps were “painted from memory from material gathered out of books about the pioneer west.” The result is a vibrant combination of the West’s grit and romance, its identity and stereotype, and its reality and nostalgia.

An Imaginary History of the West is exhibited simultaneously with Place and Time: Reenactment Pageant Photographs by Edie Winograde. Together these exhibitions offer a provocative view into the history of the American West through the eyes of both an early 21st century photographer and an early 20th century painter.

Painted between 1918 and 1920, these paintings are among Kuhn’s most successful combinations of Modern art styles derived from Cézanne and Picasso with a uniquely American subject matter. Chosen to complement Edie Winograde’s photographs of contemporary Western reenactments, this 29-painting suite, from the Fine Arts Center’s permanent collection, captures the romance of the old West without attempting to be realistic.

Among the most important of early 20th century American artists, Walt Kuhn was an early advocate of European Modern art in America and integrated its influence into his own art. He was born in New York in 1877 and first traveled west to San Francisco in 1899, where he began his career as an illustrator.

While perhaps best known for his portraits of circus and vaudeville entertainers, Kuhn painted a wide variety of subjects throughout his life. He destroyed many of his canvases, saving only those that met his own strict standards. The fact that he saved his Imaginary History paintings shows his regard for the series; he even bought back several pieces that had previously sold in order to keep the group intact. After his death in 1949, Kuhn’s widow and daughter presented Imaginary History of the West to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, fulfilling his desire that the series belong to a museum in the West.

If I can leave at least one fine painting, I will be content. — Walt Kuhn