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The Camp Cook

On view

The Camp Cook

Artist: Walt Kuhn (American, 1877 - 1949)

Date: 1931
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 40 x 30 1/4in. (101.6 x 76.8cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Walt Kuhn / 1931'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 57.307
Text Entries

In 1940 Walt Kuhn of this painting: “Despite the prominence of subject matter, a strong armature of design is ever-present.”(1) And it does have most, if not all, of the abstract elements necessary to a complete artistic statement regardless of subject and surface style. Kuhn more than once said that three basic tones were all that were necessary to any painting. The three tones in The Camp Cook are the light one of the hat, shirt, and bowl; the middle tone is the tawny flesh of the face and arms, the potatoes, and a swag of some kind of drapery in the upper right; the dark tones are those of the background, with a climax in the work-apron, the same one the painter himself usually wore. It has a warmer quality than the neutral background. The whole painting escapes the threatened boredom of a monochrome by grace of the yellow hat with its flick of ribbon, and the friendly wood color of the bowl.

The Utica painting came from the good year, or rather half-year, of 1931. Kuhn had spent several spring months in Europe, looking with a new intensity at well-remembered masterpieces and new developments in the arts. He was back in New York by June, ready to produce several other notable paintings: The Blue Clown (Whitney Museum of American Art), Clown with Red Wig (Mrs. Eugene McDermott, Dallas, Texas), Plumes (Phillips Collection), The Guide (Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska), and Trude (Santa Barbara Museum of Art). Trude and Plumes are an early and most distinguished part of the chorus line of show girls for which he is best known to the general public, together with other show business types, clowns, and acrobats.

The model for The Camp Cook was, oddly enough, from show business too. He was George Fitzgerald, a farm boy from Eden, Wisconsin, who drifted to New York where he signed up with Lillies, a producing and booking agency. “He is a loyal admirer of art and artists,” wrote the painter, “and enjoys posing for such reflective pictures,” as he did for at least two others: The Man from Eden (Albright- Knox Art Gallery) and Wisconsin (National Gallery of Art). He introduced several useful models to the artist.(2)

In 1931 Kuhn also painted Miss A. (Colby College Museum of Art), a half-draped nude figure of a Martha Graham dancer. Walt Kuhn did very few such paintings, having a Spanish reticence in these matters. After all, he was half Spanish and began his 1931 European odyssey in Spain, “My mother’s country.”(3) There is an unmistakable Spanish reserve, in spite of its engaging subject, in The Camp Cook.

Curiously enough he painted only one small still life in 1931, unless the potatoes, paring knife, and bowl of The Camp Cook should be considered one, as it might well be. After all, his later still lifes are among his major accomplishments, as important as his better known show business subjects.

Most significantly, The Camp Cook is one of the early important confirmations of the principle that the artist had laboriously discovered and from 1931 on was to demonstrate with a master’s authority—that the central theme of Western art is the single human figure, simply posed.



1. Philip R. Adams, Walt Kuhn, Painter: His Life and Work (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1978), p. 136.

2. Ibid., p. 129.

3. Ibid., p. 132.


© Estate of Walt Kuhn