Dr. Clifford R. Bragdon, FASA
Professor Emeritus, Florida Institute of Technology
Co-Curator, Langdon Kihn: An American Story
W. Langdon Kihn (American, 1898 - 1957), born in Brooklyn, NY, was the son of a well-known steel engraver, Alfred C. Kihn. Because of his artistic talent, he was enrolled in the Art Students League, studying under Homer Boss and later Winold Reiss.
In 1920 Reiss invited his prize student on a painting expedition to the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana. Kihn wrote, “It was the most exciting experience of my life.” He returned later that year to paint both tribal Blackfoot and the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. Kihn was very popular among the Indians, and Chief Curly Bear adopted the artist into the Blackfoot tribe, naming him “Chase Enemy in the Water.” “It was a bitter cold winter, 35-40 degrees below zero,” Kihn wrote, but he finished his portraits, depicting the Indians in their native land and ceremonial dress, constituting a faithful and artistic transcription of a people and a life now swiftly passing.
Starting with an exhibition in 1921 at the Santa Fe Museum, his paintings of North American Indians were enthusiastically received, travelling coast to coast and viewed in nearly 100 museums and galleries. The paintings by this young artist stirred rave reviews, with The New York Times describing his Indian portraits as “marvels of incisive characterization. These closely studied physiognomies show no trace of sentimental idealization.” His exhibitions were extremely popular and continued to receive great acclaim: “This is one of the rare events that steals upon the world without notice” (New York Evening World). “Perhaps the most stimulating exhibition of this kind that New York has ever seen” (American Art News).
The Canadian Pacific Railroad invited Kihn and his new wife, Helen to the Canadian Northwest as their guests to artistically capture the Canadian Rockies, British Columbia and the many Indian tribes in their native lands. These paintings were subsequently viewed in museums throughout Canada. Following another trip to the Far West in 1926 and a series of commissions for the Cunard Lines in 1928, Kihn left New York with Helen and their child, Phyllis, bound for Paris. Arriving in November, 1929, they moved into a studio apartment on the Left Bank. There Kihn had a very successful show at the Charpentier Gallery, introduced by the U.S. Ambassador to France. While painting in Seville, Spain, and Brittany, France, he completed portraits of Andalusian Gypsies, matadors, French landscapes and portraits of French people. The New York Times rotogravure followed his work continuously with pictures and articles for the three years he lived in Paris. In 1932 his European paintings were successfully exhibited in New York, but with the failing economy the Kihns returned to Connecticut. During this period he received Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissions including the Nathan Hale mural at the Nathan Hale-Ray School in Moodus, CT and a formal portrait of Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross, among other works. During this time he also illustrated numerous books.
Due to his professional achievements and global reputation, the National Geographic Society signed Kihn to a 12 year contract (1937-1949) to paint all remaining 35 North American Indian tribes. This involved traveling by every mode of transportation over 15,000 miles to paint in the Southwest, the Far West, the Far North, the Western Plains, the Totem Pole territories of British Columbia, and Southeastern U.S. Of the 129 canvases produced, 105 were used in the National Geographic Society book: Indians of the Americas, published in 1955. Some 350,000 copies were printed, and W. Langdon Kihn received noteworthy acclaim in the book: “Kihn’s artistry and painstaking research have produced the most complete, authentic and dramatic picture record of the American Indian ever achieved.” Over his lifetime Kihn painted more than 400 Indian portraits and landscapes, requiring travel exceeding 30,000 miles and living up to three months at a time with the native tribes he depicted.
His last period of painting from 1936 until his death in 1957, involved lyrical landscapes of the Connecticut River Valley, portraits of family and friends, and teaching art. These subjects all touched him deeply. Kihn had a breadth of talent that captured the interests of artisans, media, scientists, ethnologists, philanthropists and the general artistic community.
Our family is proud of what our uncle achieved in the artistic, cultural and humanitarian world. Few people realize that because of Kihn’s attention to detail, many of the North American Indians were portrayed with their eyes nearly closed due to blindness. The Canadian Commissioner of Indian Affairs after a meeting with Kihn made an inquiry. An investigation followed and resulted in instituting medical changes to provide protection to the eyesight of the Native Indian population of Canada.
Image credits for photos in order of appearance:
Chief Oskomon posing for W. Langdon Kihn, ca. 1930 / Wide World Photos: The New York Times, S.A., photographer, W. Langdon Kihn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Langdon Kihn painting National Geographic Society commissions, c. 1940.
Courtesy National Geographic Image Collection and East Haddam Historical Society.