Born in Prussian Silesia (modern South Poland) in 1865, Wilhelm Kuhnert’s technical skill was apparent from a young age. Having completed a commercial apprenticeship, the young artist would win a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berlin University of Arts, where he would train under the established animal painter Paul Friedrich Mayerheim between 1883 and 1887. One of the first artists to capture animal fur and anatomy in a naturalistic manner, Meyerheim grew up around the Berlin Zoological gardens, and had made friends with the zookeeper who allowed him to sketch its animals closely. The older artist quickly impressed the importance of studying animals in proximity upon Kuhnert, stressing that this contact was crucial for any aspiring wildlife painter.
Yet if Meyerheim’s generation had taken an important first step towards the faithful depiction of exotic animals, Kuhnert’s contribution would prove decisive in creating the genre of wildlife painting in its modern form. In 1891 the artist would travel to the new German colony of East Africa in order to see and paint its animals in the flesh. Almost at once, the quality and reception of his works improved dramatically. Where he an Mayerheim had been using a cardboard, sand, and charcoal model to simulate the Savannah, the young artist suddenly found himself able to create myriad sketches not just of the environment, but also how the animals interacted with it. Kuhnert would revisit Africa multiple times, also travelling to Scandinavia in 1901 and the Indian Subcontinent in 1911 with the aim of systematically capturing each location’s animals in the wild.
Kuhnert’s career is a testament to the fact that great wildlife painting needs more than just virtuosic skill, it demands complete understanding of environment and the nature of the wild animals themselves. The artist was adamant on making studies in nature, trying to capture the essence not just of the animal, but the animal in the wild. Kuhnert consequently avoided making the more polished studies afforded by animals in captivity, the norm for wildlife painters of the period. As JG Millais noted, Kuhnert and his followers ‘surpassed other artists because they have not been content with caged creatures’. Alongside extensive charcoal sketches made in the bush, the artist also took advantage of the increasing portability of cameras, with photographs often complimenting his preparatory work. All this groundwork resulted in a brushwork that delivered unprecedented vitality not just to the animal subject, but to its previously neglected natural setting.
Naturally, there had been a good reason that no wildlife artists had previously travelled the world in an attempt to paint animals in the flesh. Kuhnert’s four visits to Central and East Africa were undertaken in a period where the continent was not just inaccessible, it was largely unexplored. Consequently, the artists trips often resembled expeditions, with porters and guards; a photograph taken in 1911 shows Kuhnert as perhaps the only en-plein-air painter to carry three rifles! Beyond the threat of the animals, Kuhnert would also describe the taxing process of painting, noting that he would spend all day ‘with the sun beating down on one’s body, and the paint dripping from the palette like so much water’. Kuhnert’s legacy is almost as important to ein plein air technique as it was to wildlife painting, and the two clearly went hand in hand, with his dedication to arduous travel allowing the creating of his lifelike canvases.
Wilhelm Kuhnert’s art leaves a significant legacy. His naturalistic cavasses shaped the approach of all wildlife painters to come after him; by travelling to study animals in the wild he set a new standard of faithful representation that had to be risen to. His success shaped the popular image of African wildlife in period before photography had solidified it in the public mind. To his German and wider European audience, his works represented the opposite of the closeted and fettered bourgeois experience of the belle epoch and thus proved extremely popular. Crucially, his career spanned a unique moment, in which modern techniques and infrastructure allowed him to paint animals which were still largely untouched by the rapidly encroaching modern world, affording him a veracity lost to his successors.