Charles Louis Kuhn (1901-1985)
Professor, museum director, and scholar of German art, Charles Louis Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 14, 1901. After an early education at military school, he received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan in 1923. He then continued his studies at Harvard University, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1924 and a Ph.D. in Fine Arts in 1929. Kuhn would remain at Harvard as a beloved professor, scholar and promoter of the arts for the rest of his career. He served as professor in the art department from 1931 to 1968 and Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts from 1949 to 1953.
In 1930 Kuhn was named director of the Busch-Reisinger Museum (the Germanic Museum) at Harvard, a museum dedicated to the study of German art. Under Kuhn’s leadership, the museum grew to house one of the finest collections of modern art from central and northern Europe, including notable works of art from the Bauhaus, the Viennese Secession, and German Expressionism. In the 1930s, he began acquiring pieces that Hitler had deemed “degenerate” and had thus been removed from German museums including Max Beckmann’s Self Portrait in Tuxedo and E.L. Kirchner’s Self Portrait with a Cat.
In 1937, Walter Gropius, German founder of the Bauhaus School, arrived at Harvard to become head of the architecture program. Together, Gropius and Kuhn built an outstanding Bauhaus collection at the Busch-Reisinger, gaining the support of other Bauhaus artists and architects exiled from Europe and living in the United States. Because of Kuhn’s contribution to the museum, a colleague later remarked that “To put it simply, Harvard has the most distinguished collection of German art in America, and a collection of German art of the twentieth century that is considered outstanding even in Germany.”
In 1942 Kuhn entered the U.S. Naval Reserve and was assigned as a Navy Intelligence officer. For two years, he interrogated German prisoners. Due to his extensive knowledge of German art and culture, he was highly desired by the Roberts Commission for assignment with the MFAA. However, he was so effective as a Naval interrogator that he was released from his post only after direct intervention from officials in Washington.
In March 1945 he was named Deputy Chief of the MFAA Section under British Monuments Man Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb. He was stationed at SHAEF headquarters at Versailles and later in Frankfurt, Germany. At headquarters, Webb and Kuhn coordinated the operations of Monuments Men in the field as well as managing submitted field reports and planning future MFAA operations. In addition to his administrative duties, Kuhn traveled across the American Zone of Occupation in pursuit of looted works of art and cultural objects. In Summer 1945 he was responsible for the rescue of two trucks filled with paintings by Brueghel, Titian, and Velázquez, and tapestries belonging to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, which had been stolen by the Nazis from their hiding place in the Lauffen salt mine. He was also involved in the transport of artworks belonging to the Berlin Museums, including the famous Egyptian sculpted bust of Queen Nefertiti. Together with Monuments Men Lt. Col. Mason Hammond, Lt. Cdr. Thomas C. Howe, and Lt. Col. John Nicholas Brown, Kuhn helped arrange the transfer of the Berlin collections from the Merkers mine to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point after temporary storage at the Reichsbank in Frankfurt. He also conferred with Monuments Man Lt. Col. Ernest DeWald, Chief of the MFAA Section at the headquarters of U.S. Forces, Austria (USFA) regarding the evacuation of the vast salt mine at Altaussee, Austria.
Although he himself did not sign the Wiesbaden Manifesto (an internal protest by 32 MFAA Officers regarding the shipment of 202 German-owned paintings from the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for safekeeping), he strongly agreed with the sentiments of his colleagues. In the January 1946 issue of College Art Journal, he published the text of his colleagues’ protest, accompanied by an article in which he spoke out against the transfer. He further argued that the paintings’ removal was unwarranted due to the extraordinary level of care given to works of art under the care of the MFAA at the various collecting points.
Kuhn returned to the United States in October 1945 and resumed his post at Harvard. A prolific scholar, he published numerous works including A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections (1936), German Expressionist and Abstract Art, the Harvard Collections (1957), German and Netherlandish Sculpture, 1280-1800, the Harvard Collections (1965), and served as the editor of Art Journal from 1948-1950. Kuhn retired from Harvard as Professor Emeritus in 1968. In recognition for his contributions to the study of Germanic art, he was awarded the Order of Knighthood of the Northern Star by the Swedish Government in 1955 and the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1959.
Beloved by his colleagues and students, Charles Kuhn died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 21, 1985 after a long illness.
Photo courtesy of the Kuhn Family (private collection).