On Safari with Wilhelm Kuhnert in Middleburg, Virginia 

Elephants by Kuhnert (c. 1917), NMWA.

by Brooke Chilvers

If only I had known that, in the dead of winter 2018/2019, there was a major exhibition of Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert’s (1865–1926) work in Frankfurt, Germany, I would have pulled all my plugs to be there.  At least now, until January 14, 2024, I can satisfy my Kuhnert itch at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, where he hangs alongside the other masters of European wildlife painting, Carl Rungius (1869–1959), Richard Friese (1854–1918), and Bruno Liljefors (1860–1939).  

I’ve followed Kuhnert’s footsteps since seeing my first originals at the esteemed Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg in the 1980s.  On the same trip, I managed to convince the curator of the then-Museum Africa to show me a full rack of carefully stored Kuhnert paintings.  Several had actually been restored to their African blue-sky splendor, which brought tears to my eyes.  Unfortunately, it is likely they will remain hidden away as museums steer themselves away from such “politically incorrect” and “colonial” images.

Kuhnert, painting in the field.

It was difficult researching his four safaris to German East Africa and Sudan between 1891 and 1912.  Everywhere the same banal biography, while Kuhnert’s richly detailed travel-painting-hunting diaries from Europe, East Africa, India, and Ceylon have never been published.  And his illustrated 1920 African narrative, Im Land Meiner Modelle (In the Land of my Models), has never been translated.  Alongside his narratives of confronting elephant, lion, and Cape buffalo, he recorded accidents, illnesses, loads lost in rivers, and both the kindness and truculence of natives.  He described the shapes of umbrella acacias and shimmering yellow fever trees, and the misery of painting during East Africa’s two rainy seasons with their clouds of annoying insects.  

Europe’s first plein-air artist to portray Africa’s wildlife, landscapes, and people, was born in 1865 in Oppeln, the German-speaking administrative center of Upper Silesia, located since the end of World War II in southern Poland.  Despite his obvious prodigious talent, family finances obliged him to apprentice in a machining factory, while he studied the Old Masters,including Holbein and Vermeer, on his own, using his pastor as his model.  Then, at age 17, an uncle arranged his move to Berlin to live with a cousin and study fine art.  But before applying to Berlin’s Royal Academy of Art, he worked for two years as a portrait artist and calligrapher of elaborate calling cards.  

Kuhnert was also his own professional hunter.

By 1885, he was successful enough to have his own Berlin studio and start reaching for adventure.  The same year, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck formalized Germany’s position in the “Scramble for Africa” by granting an imperial charter to the protectorate of German East Africa (1885–1919), situated between Great Britain’s Kenya Colony and Portugal’s Moçambique.  It encompassed yesterday’s Tanganyika and today’s Rwanda and Burundi.  

Five years later, in 1891, Kuhnert, then 27, set off on his first 18-month African safari, funded by earnings from his illustrations for the dictionary of animals, Brehms Tierbuilder.