Chico in Top Hat

Walt Kuhn

Chico con chistera

Kuhn, Walt

Brooklyn, 1877 - White Plains, 1949

Chico in Top Hat, 1948

© Walt Kuhn, 2015

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Oil on canvas

58,4 x 53,3 cm


Artwork history

  • Maynard Walker Gallery, New York.

  • Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York.

  • Harry Spiro, New York.

  • Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York.

  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano, 1975.

  • Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.


Painter of Vision: A Retrospective Exhibition of Oils, Watercolors and Drawings by Walt Kuhn, Tucson (AZ), The University of Arizona Art Gallery


Walt Kuhn 1877-1949, New York, Kennedy Galleries, nº 50.


Important American Art 1903-1972, New York, Kennedy Galleries, nº 15.


European and American Masterpieces, New York (NY), Andrew Crispo Gallery, nº 35.


Collezione Thyssen-Bornemisza. Arte moderna, Lugano, Villa Malpensata, nº 57.

1979 - 1980

America & Europe. A Century of Modern Masters from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Perth, Art Gallery of Western Australia; Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia; Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Wellington, New Zealand, National Art Gallery; Auckland, Auckland City Art Gallery; Christchurch, Robert McDougall Art Gallery; Dunedin, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, nº 81, pp. 99, 163.

1984 - 1986

American Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Baltimore (MD), The Baltimore Museum of Art; Detroit (MI), The Detroit Institute of Arts; Denver (CO), Denver Art Museum; San Antonio (TX), Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute; New York (NY), IBM Gallery of Arts and Sciences; San Diego (CA), San Diego Museum of Art; Palm Beach (FL), The Society of the Four Arts, nº 91, pp. 117, 167.


Barcelona, París, New York. D´Urgell a O´Keeffe. Col.lecció Carmen Thyssen. Del 11 de julio al 18 de octubre de 2015. Espai Carmen Thyssen, Sant Feliu de Guixols, p. 132.

  • -Johnson, F.: ”Walt Kuhn: American Master”. In American Artist. December, 1967, p. 57, illus.

  • -Walt Kuhn, 1877-1949. Getlein, F. (intr.). [Exhib. cat.] New York, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., 1967 , nº 50, illus. [Sheet by Getlein].

  • -Young, M. S.: ”Letter from USA: Fantastics and Eccentrics’‘. In Apollo. June, 1967, vol. 84 , p. 467, illus.

  • -Adams, P. R.: Walt Kuhn. Painter His Life and Work. Columbus (OH), 1978, nº 531, p. 233.

  • -America & Europe, a century of modern masters from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. [Exhib. Cat. Perth, Art Gallery of Western Australia – Christchurch, Robert McDougall Art Gallery, 1979-80]. Sydney, Australian Gallery Directors Council, 1979, nº 81, pp. 99, 163, illus. [Sheet by Eric. M. Zafran].

  • -Levin, Gail: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Twentieth-Century American Painting. London, Sotheby’s Publications, 1987, nº 31, pp. 116-117, illus.

  • -Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Arnaldo, Javier (ed.). 2 vols. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2004, vol. 2, p. 434, illus. p. 435 [Sheet by Carmen Bernárdez Sanchís].

  • -Barcelona, París, New York. D´Urgell a O´Keeffe. Col.lecció Carmen Thyssen. Espai Carmen Thyssen, Sant Feliu de Guixols, 2015. p. 132.

Expert report

Chico in Top Hat is one of the many representations of circus performers constituting a fundamental part of Kuhn’s artistic creation. One of the best examples of this subject is White Clown, painted in 1929, now at the National Gallery of Washington, and his most famous work. In that painting, Kuhn composed a monumental, robust figure in a sitting position, which takes up the entire canvas, and which patently shows the influence of Cézanne’s concept of composition. Chico in Top Hat, on the other hand, clearly reveals a difference in its artistic design and execution. The stylised figure of the young clown wearing a jacket and a black top hat stands out against a grey background with wide vertical folds. His long bony face is covered in thick white makeup with strong black lines outlining the eyebrows, eyes and lips. The painting is executed with a restricted range of colours, which Kuhn uses to give intense effects of light. Chico presents a frontal gaze and is strongly hieratic, with a restrained expression conveying intense melancholy. Clearly, the emphasis is on the huge eyes, a characteristic of the majority of Kuhn’s figures from the 1920s until the end of his life, although this was not the case of White Clown, in which the painter was more interested in the volume and plasticity of the body. Here, the character stares at a point outside the painting, where the spectator stands, but the intensity of his gaze is not really on the viewer or on an object outside the picture; it hides a deep sense of solitude and of interior crisis, which Kuhn’s friends had perceived in the painter himself during the last months of his life, when he held his last exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York. In November 1948 he had a nervous breakdown followed by a gastric perforation, as a consequence of which he died in a hospital in New York.

Kuhn’s relationship with the performing arts was not just an artistic option in line with so many representations of harlequins, clowns, actors and circus performers, starting with Watteau’s Gilles, Degas’ circus scenes, Picasso’s harlequins and Rouault’s characters. Among the American painters, Everett Shinn had depicted theatre and variety shows, while Bellows and Luks had chosen boxing matches. The direct and realistic representation of the figure recalls the circle of realist painters in which Walt Kuhn had moved in his initial years.

Although he was not a direct follower of Robert Henri or of the so called Ash Can School, he was in touch with him and his circle during the organisation of the Exhibition of Independent Artists held in 1910, three years before the Armory Show. Kuhn shared with the realist artists a taste for the direct observation of things, and particularly a strong rejection of academic conservatism. He had always been a skilful entrepreneur and organiser. His link with the world of the performing arts went back to his youth when he was responsible for delivering to the theatres the costumes made in the shop where he worked, and he often delayed behind the scenes. Later, he executed some advertising commissions for the circus and in 1928 he collaborated with Libby Holman in the vaudeville showMerry-Go-Round, for which he designed the set and costumes. The characters which fill his paintings of the 1920s, 30s and 40s were generally professional performers and not models, and Kuhn and his wife designed the circus or theatre costumes with which they were portrayed.

Carmen Bernárdez Sanchís