Publication Date

Fall 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Art and Art History


Beverly Grindstaff


American Art, Modern Art, New York, Theatre, Vaudeville, Walt Kuhn

Subject Areas

Art history; American studies; Theater history


Walt Kuhn, an American artist born in New York, is often overlooked for his contribution to Modern American Art. Kuhn is typically recognized for his organizational and curatorial role in the 1913 Armory Show, but he was also internationally known in his time for his paintings of show people and as a creative director for several vaudeville and circus acts over his lifetime. During his career as a creative director, Kuhn’s artwork evolved from superficial renderings of theatre scenes to psychologically intense tronies of performers. Kuhn and other American artists, including the Ashcan group and Edward Hopper, examined the relationship between popular entertainment and the urbanization of New York, expressing modernity in visual terms through scenes of popular entertainment. Kuhn set himself apart from his American counterparts by isolating the performer in a manner similar to that of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s and Picasso’s paintings of commedia dell’arte figures. Utilizing the performer as an alter ego, these artists represent the harsh realities of life, including social alienation. Sociological theories from Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, and Louis Wirth regarding modernity and the urbanization of large cities are used to further analyze the isolated performer in Kuhn’s paintings. Ultimately, this thesis argues that Kuhn’s tronies are not only symbols of modernity, but also act as metaphorical devices; they penetrate the veil of isolation created by modernity, and in turn establish an intimate connection with the viewer.