Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert was born in Oppeln on September 18, 1865. He was a German painter, author and illustrator specializing in animal pictures. At the age of 17 Kuhnert began a technical and commercial apprenticeship, which he failed to complete. From 1883 to 1887 Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert had a scholarship to study at the 'Königliche Akademische Hochschule für Bildende Künste'. Kuhnert's main residence was in Berlin, from where he traveled north and to Egypt, East Africa and India, producing extensive landscape and animal studies. His favorite motifs were African lions. He studied and drew tropical animals in their natural habitat, not only in zoological gardens. In 1894 Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert married the 18-year-old Emilie Caroline Wilhelmine Ottilie Alvine Herdikerhoff, with whom he had one daughter. During a study trip to Ceylon Kuhnert left his wife and was divorced in 1909. That year Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert also illustrated the book 'Tierleben der Erde', which he had co-written with the zoologist Johann Wilhelm Haacke. In 1913 he entered into his second marriage with Gerda von Jankowski. His wife died on his 60th birthday. Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert himself died on February 11, 1926, during a rehabilitative stay in Switzerland (Flims, Grisons). Today, Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert is still known as one of the most important German animal painters of his time. His work includes drawings, etchings, watercolors and oil paintings. Not only a painter and illustrator but also a hunter, Kuhnert often accepted great adversity to track down and capture his motifs in their natural habitat.
ca. 1916, by Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert (1865 - 1926)
Oil on fabric 45 1/8”x 85 1/8”
This account of the origin of “Der Menschenfresser” has been passed down through the Kuhnert family for three generations and, as far as I have been able to determine, there is no other written documentation of this account of the circumstances surrounding the origin of this painting.
Around 1916, while Willi Kuhnert was in Africa, a local mail man was attacked and killed by a lion while delivering the mail on his bicycle. Villagers who either witnessed the attack or happened upon the scene very shortly thereafter had no firearm and immediately sent a runner to fetch Kuhnert who was the only man they knew close by who had a rifle. When Kuhnert arrived on the scene he shot and killed the lion on the spot, made sketches of the scene, and later painted what he saw that day.
“Der Menschenfresser” was Wilhelm Kuhnert’s favorite painting and, along with his double rifle, the lion’s skull, and the victim’s mail pouch, remained with him until his death in 1926. It then passed down to his son, later to his grandson. During WWII, while living in Berlin, Kuhnert’s son buried many of Kuhnert’s possessions, including his double rifle and the mail pouch, to prevent confiscation by the Nazi’s. When his son dug everything up after the war the mail pouch was badly deteriorated and subsequently discarded. The rifle and skull still reside with family members.
In 1999, a gentleman acquired the painting via private sale arranged by Kuhnert’s grandson (now deceased). Approximately thirty years or so prior to that the owner, residing in Italy, had found the content of the painting objectionable and had another artist paint over the man’s remains including most of the blood thus disguising that area as a bush.
In 2002, the painting once again changed hands privately and, in 2008, that owner decided to have the painting restored to its original condition. As you will see from the conservator’s report, the paint that had been used to mask the blood and human remains was an alcohol-soluble acrylic which was easily removed with no damage to the original paint beneath. Neither had there been any scraping nor other damage to the original paint layer during that initial cover-up.
Apparently, that owner, after seeing the painting restored to its original context, found it so graphic that he very carefully altered segments of the original stretcher and folded (large radius fold so as not to damage either the paint or the canvas) the right side of the canvas back upon itself hiding the victim’s head and most of the gore behind the painting. He then reframed the painting with a Plexiglas shield covering the hidden portion to provide protection for that portion of the painting.
The current owner purchased the painting, once again via private sale, in 2009, at which time it was sent to “Cumberland Art Conservation Center” in Nashville, TN, for an evaluation of the current condition of the painting along with a new stretcher and reframing back to the original size. Complete reports from the conservators including photographic documentation accompany the painting.
One final note. The size and quality of “Der Menschenfresser” in relation to Kuhnert’s other works, not to mention the subject matter and circumstances surrounding its origin, are a testimony to the importance it held in the mind of the artist. The context and vivid details are at once savage and horrifying, however, the whole is a brutally honest rendering of an historical event that would have had great emotional significance to the artist and, in that regard, this painting is unique among all of Wilhelm Kuhnert’s works.
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