Ernst Oppler - German Impressionist

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.

Langdon Kihn (American, 1898-1957)
Juliette Gaultier de la Verendrye
Color Pencil with silver leaf
1927

Courtesy of Catherine Eithier

The model in the drawing is renowned Canadian ethnomusicologist Juliette Gaultier de la Verendrye who often performed in authentic aboriginal clothing, singing in native languages and accompanying herself with indigenous instruments. These two great artists met for the first time in New York City where Gaultier was performing in April of 1926. In this drawing Gaultier is shown in an Inuit shaman’s coat from the ethnographic collections of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. The unique design of this coat and unusual motifs depicted on it, were inspired by a shaman’s vision. The coat was collected from the Hudson Bay area in 1902 and it was considered one of the rarest pieces of the AMNH. It is probable that Kihn created the drawing in the AMNH, since removing the coat from the museum would likely have been prohibited. It is not known whether Gaultier commissioned Kihn to draw her portrait or if Kihn asked Gaultier to pose in the shaman’s coat.

This piece is a perfect example of Langdon Kihn’s work, exhibiting his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to render strongly recognizable portraits.  Kihn’s fervor for documenting native dress with historic accuracy is also apparent in the drawing. The background of silver leaf creates an ethereal atmosphere so appropriate for the shaman’s coat and its other-worldly associations.  Use of leaf paint to create mood was a technique frequently used by Kihn.

-Catherine Eithier, 2014

Langdon Kihn

Chief Curly Bear
Graphite on paper, 1919

Courtesy of Dr. and Mrs. Clifford Bragdon

Nathan Hale Mural

During the great depression, the federal government was the major patron of American art. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA) and other federal assistance programs put unemployed Americans to work in return for temporary financial assistance. Out of the 10 million jobless people in the United States in 1935, 3 million were helped by WPA jobs alone. WPA workers built highways, schools, and airports. The WPA also put artists, actors, writers and other creative arts professional to work by sponsoring federally funded art projects, such as historic murals on public buildings.

In 1935, W. Langdon Kihn was commissioned by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to paint such a mural depicting the life of Nathan Hale (1755 – 1776), a First Lieutenant in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. At age 21, Hale was the only soldier who volunteered to go behind enemy lines for General George Washington to learn about the upcoming British invasion of Manhattan Island. He volunteered for this spy mission on September 8, 1776 and was caught and executed by the British two weeks later on September 22. After his capture he stated, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” This 53 foot mural painted by Kihn portrays aspects of Hale’s life in a series of five panels.

Upon completion, Kihn’s mural was installed in the Nathan Hale-Ray School in Moodus, CT in October 1935.

Panel One - Nathan Hale at Yale College, New Haven, CT (enrolled at age 16) 

Panel Two- Nathan Hale as a 20 year old school teacher at the little red school house, East Haddam, CT

Panel Three- Nathan Hale homestead in Coventry, CT where he was born 

Panel Four-The capture of 1st Lieutenant Nathan Hale by the British 

Panel Five- Nathan Hale being marched to his execution 

The school is now closed, and a fund has been established to preserve and relocate this mural. (For those wanting to contribute to this fund, contact East Haddam Mural Fund, P.O. Box 623, Moodus, CT 06469)

Many thanks to photographer George Greider who has contributed considerable time and energy documenting Kihn’s mural.

Many thanks to the sponsors, collectors and institutions which helped make this exhibition possible.

Exhibition Sponsors

Florida Today

Dr. Clifford and Sarah Bragdon

Jan Sweet and Rod Auclair

Merritt Island Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln

 

Florida Bank of Commerce

Bjørnar and Bjørg Hermansen

Mary Vaughn and Judy Williams

David Verlen

Aetna

Northwestern Mutual

Thomas S. Sanczyk

Francine M. Cohn

Brandon and Elizabeth Hole

Collectors

Dr. Clifford and Sarah Bragdon, Melbourne Beach, FL

Katherine Bragdon,Fredericksburg, VA

Paul Crawford, Penticton, BC, Canada

East Haddam Historical Society, East Haddam, CT

Catherine Eithier, Billings, MT

Brandon and Elizabeth Hole, Darien, CT

Margaret M. Hvatum, St. Louis, MO

Peggy Shepley, St. Louis, MO

Jan Sweet and Rod Auclair, Haddam, CT

Lance and Rachel Rose, Dallas, TX

Dennis Carlson and Lori J. Soltis, East Haddam, CT

Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Mr. and Mrs. L Frederick Valentine, Calgary, AB, Canada

National Geographic Image Collection, Washington, DC