Wilhelm Kuhnert

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Wilhelm Kuhnert

Kuhnert is considered the world's first leading wildlife painter, who explored Africa four times with brush and rifle alone, but also India and other countries.
Born 28 September 1865(1865-09-28)
Oppeln, Province of Silesia, Kingdom of Prussia, German Confederation
Died February 11, 1926 (aged 60)
Films, Kanton Graubünden, Switzerland
Occupation Painter, illustrator, author, explorer (Afrikaforscher)
Spouse(s) ∞ 1894 Emilie Herdikerhoff/Herdieckerhoff
∞ 1913 Gerda von Jankowski
Children 1

Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Kuhnert (18 September 1865 – 11 February 1926) was a German painter, author and illustrator, who specialized in animal images. He was the first white plein-air artist to travel to black Africa to portray its wildlife, landscapes and natives. Der Löwen-Kuhnert (The lion Kuhnert) became the leading interpreter of his time of tropical wildlife, and had a lasting influence on the romantic image that people had of Africa. Wilhelm Kuhnert would venture through the wilds, he would draw and paint people and animals, collect specimens, do battle with natives, and explore areas of the continent that few if any Europeans has ever seen.


14-year-old Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Kuhnert ; Source: Hansjörg Werner (grandson)
African native
During the Battle at Mahenge, Meister Kuhnert (who had arrived at the station on 10 August 1905), a great and reliable shot, stood at the side of Captain von Hassel and the Schutztruppe and fought bravely, for which he received the Red Eagle Order, 4th Class with Swords from Kaiser Wilhelm II.[1]
Gorilla in einem afrikanischen Stamm (Gorilla in an African tribe), sold at an aution on 7 November 2023 for EUR 12.713,-
Der Menschenfresser (The Man-Eater); This masterwork (115 x 213 cm) by Kuhnert was completed in 1916 and showed the reality of the "jungle". A natve letter carrier (Briefbote) of the German Imperial Colonial Reichspost, they would run from village to village, station to station, was attacked, killed and eaten. The Berlin press reported at the time that the ladies of the better Berlin society while looking at the monumental painting “fainted in rows”.
Grabstein von Wilhelm Kuhnert, Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf.jpg
Hansjörg Werner (grandson) Wer war Wilhelm Kuhnert, große deutsche Tiermaler.jpg

He grew up in Oppeln in lower-middle-class circumstances and showed a strong desire to draw as a toddler. Although his family recognized his prodigious talent already at age three, from drawings on a kitchen tablecloth, his civil-servant father’s finances obliged him, at age fourteen after graduating from elementary school, to apprentice in the Dutch tool-machining factory, Dessauer Maschinenfabrik, in Cottbus in Brandenburg, over 300 kilometers away. Nevertheless, on his own he studied Old Masters, like Hans Holbein, using his pastor as a model for his profile portraits, and painted seascapes and farm animals. After a year of the technical-commercial apprenticeship, he dropped out due to a lack of interest in this line of work. When he was just sixteen, he moved to Berlin in 1882, where he lived with his cousin Klara Roppertz and her husband and earned a fairly successful living with his first commissioned paintings.

Still 17 in 1883, Kuhnert took part in a scholarship competition. He presented a copy of the painting by Jan van der Meer (1632–1675) "Bridal Show", which was said to be ideal. The young man from Opole won the competition and received a scholarship from the Berlin University of the Arts (Royal Academic University of Fine Arts) and was a student there under Professor Ferdinand Konrad Bellermann and Professor Paul Friedrich Meyerheim from 1883 to 1887 and won various awards and commendations. As part of his education, in addition to domestic animals, young Kuhnert painted hares, roe deer and red stag from the fields and forests from Dresden and Karlsruhe, and visited zoos as far away as Düsseldorf.

At the same time, financially well off, he continued to work as a commissioned painter in his own studio (Schinkelplatz, as of 1884) and was quickly considered a promising artist. Wilhelm Kuhnert often made his animal studies in the Berlin Zoo and met the then director Ludwig Heck, the father of Prof. Dr. Lutz Heck, and through him, the publisher and African explorer, Professor Hans Meyer (1858–1929). Inspired by Hans Meyer's stories about his trips to German East Africa and Kilimanjaro expeditions in 1887, 1888 and 1889, and the colonial enthusiasm that prevailed at the time, Wilhelm Kuhnert undertook his first of four trips to Africa in March 1891 (funded by his earnings from illustrating a dictionary of animals published by Hans Meyer, the first European to climb Mount Kilimanjaro) in the area of ​​what is now the state of Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

Via Egypt (April to June 1891) and the Indian Ocean (20 June 1891 on the Reichspostdampfer "Kaiser" in Aden departing for Zanzibar) he landed in the port city of Tanga in early July 1891. He returned to Berlin in 1892 highly inspired and with numerous designs, sketches, pictures and ideas, visiting Dresden on 13 April 1892. The following year, Wilhelm Kuhnert held a very successful, award-winning exhibition on his trip to East Africa, which led to further lucrative commissioned work.[2]

From his home in Berlin, he embarked on travels to the Sächsische Schweiz, Scandinavia, New Zealand (his paintings of Giant Penguins are renowned), Lithuania, Egypt, Africa and India to make landscape and animal studies. His favorite motif was the African lion. In the Wilhelminian society of the late 19th century, that was characterized by strict moral codes and where people increasingly moved away from the animal world due to the increasing industrialization and urbanization in everyday life, African wildlife offered a welcome avenue of escape towards nature romanticism and exoticism. Simultaneously, the lion symbolized strength and energy as the ‘king of beasts’. The upper bourgeoisie of this era was only too happy to identify with this symbolism.

For Kuhnert, his experiences with the wildlife in German East Africa brought with it another component: the hunt. On one hand, he was a passionate hunter (most likely using the reliable 7.65x53mm Mauser rifle), and on the other, hunting wild animals helped him to study them more thoroughly. Additionally, he had to provide his porters and camp staff with food. Kuhnert adhered strictly to the new game protection laws, as he traveled through the first game reserve along the Rufiji River, established by Governor Wilhelm Leopold Ludwig Hermann Wissmann in 1896. This reserve, named by the British after the Victorian hunter, author and adventurer Frederick Selous, remains to this day.

In 1897, he traveled to Switzerland and Italy. In 1901, Kuhnert was the illustrator for zoologist Johann Wilhelm Haacke's book Animal Life on Earth. In 1903, he became one of the many artists selected to provide illustrations and design prominent trading cards for the Cologne chocolate company, Stollwerck.[3] He also provided c. 360 illustrations for Brehms Tierleben. Allgemeine Kunde des Tierreichs (3rd and 4th Edition).

An elephant majestically raising its trunk, a lion looking dignified into the distance. Or a lioness looking carefully at her cubs. How could you resist these images? Images of animals – especially those of wild animals – awaken longings and positive emotions. You just enjoy looking at them. Around 1900, when Wilhelm Kuhnert painted such animal pictures, there was no color photography yet. To study wild animals in detail and paint them lifelike, you had to go to the zoo. Kuhnert did this often. Sat there and looked, drew, painted. But at some point that was no longer enough for him. With illustrations for the third edition of Brehm's Animal Life, the Berlin painter (1865-1926) had enough money for a trip to Africa. More precisely: to what was then the colony of German East Africa, where he traveled for the first time in 1891. There Kuhnert sketched the animals in their natural environment in order to later capture them on large canvases. [...] Up to fifty locals accompanied Kuhnert on his expeditions, which he undertook on foot through impassable and barely mapped terrain. “Casualties due to injuries, illnesses, attacks by wild animals and military conflicts turned the expeditions into real suicide missions,” writes Philipp Demandt [...]. People had to rely on hunting for food, which suited the painter as he was also a passionate hunter who brought back dozens of hunting trophies from his travels. The animals were always sketched by Kuhnert before they were dismantled. It goes without saying that such expeditions were characterized by great hardship. “Slept miserably. “I had rats in the tent again that even ate the eraser on the table,” complains Kuhnert in one of his travel diaries. “Then the lions, who roared throughout the night, there must have been at least 5 of them, didn’t let me rest.”[4]

Kuhnert found his motifs primarily in the former colony of German East Africa which he traveled extensively with up to 60 bearers between 1891 and 1912. It was here where he experienced the peak of the Maji Maji War in 1905. He returned to Germany in 1907 His pictures were shown at numerous colonial exhibitions.

Kuhnert was his own professional hunter. In his diaries, he complains of having to exchange his brushes for his hunting guns, to fill the ever-rumbling bellies of up to sixty easily disgruntled men. He recounts his stalks for elephant, lion and buffalo, shooting distances, and locations of recovered bullets with the passion of a big-game hunter, like when his blunderbuss killed a large crocodile that was gnawing on the carcass of a hippo he’d killed the previous day. Kuhnert described and measured his subjects from horn tip to tail hairs with the curiosity of a 19th-century naturalist scientist, but perceived their natural environment with the vision of a landscape artist. He chronicled African skies and weather, which he expressed in the bright, tropical luminescence – so different from Berlin studio light – of his paintings. Although he preferred grey skies, he painted blue ones to offset his giraffes’ and zebras’ striking markings, or the exploding fields of lavender flowers of the Masai steppe in bloom. He records accidents, illnesses, loads lost in rivers, and both the kindness and truculence of the natives. Overwhelmed by the verdancy of the savanna during East Africa’s two rainy seasons, he swears off abusing the greens of his daringly vivid palette. He describes the shapes of umbrella acacias and shimmering yellow fever trees, and the misery of painting amid clouds of annoying insects, and how the dry season heat caused the colors of his palette to mix together, its swirling winds carrying sand and dust into his eyes and onto his canvases. Yet he loved living as free as his subjects, whose body language and physiognomy he noted were not the same as caged zoo animals. [...] In June 1905, he started his second safari with thirty-four porters, two guides, two “boys”, one cook, and two “bibis” (ladies), this time starting off farther south, from Dar es Salaam. “He walked westwards, painting and hunting crocodiles, hippos and reedbuck, crossed the Ruvu and Mgeta Rivers by dugout canoe, explored what is now the Northern Sector of the present-day Selous Game Reserve, marched along the Rufiji, Ruhaha and Ulanga Rivers, and ended up in Mahenge and Iringa,” writes Rolf Baldus in his book, Wild Heart of Africa – The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. “He came close to falling into crocodile-infested waters, but fortunately quickly managed to rescue a couple of guns, as well as his camera and himself.” Sometimes the going was terribly tough and tedious through “elephant country, dense bush, high grass, hardly passable, no paths, elephant and hippo trails on which you can break your ankles a hundred times,” wrote Kuhnert in his diary. Sometimes, he marched in scorching heat across the boring burnt bush, other times by moonlight, witnessing the Rufiji in the silver night light. Only when his staff was well fed with impala or other antelope he’d killed, and he’d finished the daily rounds of doctoring them, could he sit in the shade of a mvule tree and devote himself entirely to his sketching and painting. Caught up in the Maji Maji Rebellion, [...] he was confined for weeks in the primitive garrison post of Mahenge, “defended by only five German soldiers of the Schutztruppe and sixty African askaris, against thousands of African warriors,” adds Baldus. For weeks, [...] natives besieged the area between today’s Ruaha National Park and the Selous Game Reserve. Despite the fight during which Commander von Hassel was armed with two Maxim machine guns, Kuhnert took advantage of the relatively comfortable conditions to work while being under attack. In January 1906, he was confined again, in Madibira, but used the time to paint its mission churches and portraits of the local people. After reaching the coast, he travelled from Bagamoyo to Zanzibar, to Tanga to Mombasa, then to India and Ceylon, during which time his wife left him because of his long absences (already informed about this by letter in 1906). They divorced in 1909, between his travels to Antwerp, Amsterdam and London.[5]

Contrary to the practice of his peers, Kuhnert distinguished himself by sketching tropical animals in the wild, not in zoos. He made pictures by sketching, etching, watercolor, and oil painting. Kuhnert is considered one of the most important German animal painters of his time. Kuhnert was a keen and skilled hunter himself; he returned to Africa year after year in the hunt for both game and subjects for his art.

After a few years, Kuhnert goes to Africa for the third time. This time it wasn't an easy excursion. The Saxon King, Friedrich August III, wanted to go on a hunting excursion in British-Egyptian Sudan. The Saxon Court suggested that the artist take over the tour guide. Kuhnert was happy. He had wanted to explore Sudan for a long time. Without thinking, he agreed to the trip. The safari lasted from January to March 1911, also visiting the battlefields of Omdurman. In May of the same year, Wilhelm Kuhnert went to Africa again, his forth expedition. He stayed there until February 1912, when he broke his left arm, and had returned to Germany in April 1912.

At a time when the majority of animal artists were painting their motifs in captivity, Kuhnert distinguished himself from his contemporaries (and indeed his teacher, Meyerheim) by travelling to sketch animals in their natural habitats. During his travels he recorded thedates and places he visited in his diary and made hundreds of charcoal and pencil studies of the animals he saw. Upon returning to Germany, he then completed the works in his studio, drawing upon his experiences and first-hand knowledge gathered from his adventures. The writer and critic J. G. Millais wrote, 'Germany has given us some great artists who, with thorough technical and anatomical knowledge, have yet added to their genius by going afield and studying the various beasts in their own homes. They have surpassed other artists because they have not been content with caged creatures, but have mastered that great essential, local atmosphere, as well.' In the opinion of Millais, 'there is no finer exponent of African mammals than Wilhelm Kuhnert. We who have travelled do not need to be told that his studies from nature are correct. His lions, elephants, zebras and antelopes are so real that we feel we are gazing at them on the plains of East Africa. The landscapes are simple but intense. Sunlight is there, and the tree and grass are just those that grow in the habitat of these species. Kuhnert has, as it were, got inside the very skin of African life, and draws you insensibly with the charmed circle. To the big game hunter the man who loves to observe in preference to the man who only shoots, his views of wildlife are complete because you know he has been through the mill himself, and studies with humility.'[6]

Over the next few years, his world would devolve into work and war and his body, pounded by years of travel, would begin to betray him. Never again would he be as close to the animals of East Africa in their natural habitats as he was in 1912 and before. Never again would Wilhelm Kuhnert walk, hunt, and paint his beloved Africa. He was member of the Berlin Artists Association (Verein Berliner Künstler), the Association of German Illustrators (Verband Deutscher Illustratoren) and the General German Art Cooperative (Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstgenossenschaft).

He kept a detailed diary of all expeditions. He reputedly never used an eraser on a single drawing, or made a correction to any of his 138 drypoint etching plates (usually published in editions of 60 or 100), all of which have been lost or destroyed since the last was pulled in 1925. In 1914, he had received an invitation from the German Crown Prince to travel to German Southwest Africa in 1915, but this did not come about due to the outbreak of the First World War. It was not until 1916 that the painter undertook another working trip, which took him to Bialowies, Russia, which was occupied by the Imperial German Army, where he studied bison. Four years later, further wildlife studies took him to Jämtland in Sweden, where he studied and painted moose.

Excerpt (1st expedition)

The month of August 1891, like the beginning of September, is not dated. Pictures can still be reconstructed through diary notes. Kuhnert probably had in the meantime went back to the coast because a sketch stated “9.91 Tanga”. Only from 28 September can the expedition be followed again through diary entries. It is the day of his 26th birthday and he noted: “To celebrate the day, I smoked a good cigar and had in the afternoon, as already in the morning, some nice trouble. Yesterday, around evening, an Askari came from Kirimani and said there were no bearers. So my chest stayed there. So now I have to stay here for two days and send two bearers back. In the afternoon, I cleaned my shotguns. My 16 caliber was so rusty yesterday that, even with the best will in the world, a rifle shot remained and the cartridge could not be removed. I called the Askari to fire the shot. But he did this so quickly and before I knew it, his left hand was significantly injured. I bandaged him, but he whined like a dog until the night. In the evening, it had to be around 9 p.m., suddenly a lion roared maybe 50 to 70 paces from the camp. It just sounded grizzly. It was pitch black night, so he could only be chased away with a shot. He seemed to be targeting our camp. Such a birthday treat.” The injured Askari felt better the following day, but Kuhnert sent him off to Kisewani on 30 September after new people arrived and noted: “Around 11 a.m. I was presented with a magnificent view. Lake Jipe was clearly on the plain. Surrounded by mountain ranges on both sides. In the finest light you could see a few individual blue mountains. You wouldn't believe that it's still two days' walk from here to the lake, seems like you could walk there in a few hours. I saw a lot of game today lots of ostriches and antelopes. Furthermore, a herd of hartebees, and I shot one […]” The march from the lake to Kilimanjaro turned out to be an adventurous undertaking. The area around the lake was surrounded by papyrus swamps, which he and his column of carriers crossed at the risk of their lives: “3 October 1991: Early departure. After 10 minutes, I had to cross a very large swamp, where only hippopotamus and rhinoceros reside. In some places even life-threatening […].”[7]


Kuhnert died in 1926, during a recovery stay in Flims, Switzerland after a long strech of pneumonia.


His grave is in the Stahnsdorf South-Western Cemetery in Berlin. His gravestone is decorated with a lion relief by Georg Roch based on a drawing created by Kuhnert himself.




In 1894, he married 18-year-old Emilie Caroline Wilhelmine Ottilie Alwine Herdikerhoff/Herdieckerhoff. They had a daughter, Emilie (Margarethe). The couple divorced in 1909 while their daughter was a student in Ceylon.


Kuhnert married for the second time to Gerda von Jankowski in 1913. On 28 September 1925, on his 60th birthday, she died.


  • “Only an artist dedicated to his work, who exposes himself to the dangers of the wilderness, who has the knowledge and technique, is capable of portraying wild creatures.” – Fritz Meyer-Schönbrunn, introduction to Kuhnert’s Meine Tiere
  • When looking at Wilhelm Kuhnert's oeuvre one is left with no doubt that the artist was a great lover of wildlife and that he found his subject matter a constant source of inspiration. His great affinity for the African continent and the Far East stemmed from a desire to experience and capture the exotic. A keen and skilled hunter himself, he was fascinated by the raw and uncompromising dance between prey and predator. Kuhnert returned to Africa year after year in the hunt for both game and subjects for his art. Wilhelm Kuhnert received his artistic education under the tutelage of the animal painter Paul Meyerheim in Berlin, where he learned to master the rendering of animal fur, hair and muscles. His extraordinary talent was noticed early on by his teachers, who advised him to dedicate his art to capturing the essence of wildlife. The young artist enthusiastically embraced their advice and in pursuit of his chosen genre, he travelled extensively, spending a significant amount of time in Ceylon and East Africa, where he was captivated by the wild beauty of the landscapes and their equally exotic denizens.

Awards, exhibitions and honours

  • Medal of Honor (Ehrenmedaille) of the Berlin Art Exhibition in 1883
  • Gold Medal of the The Saint Louis World's Fair, 1904
  • Mecklenburg Merit Cross in Gold of the House Order of the Wendish Crown
  • Baden Order of the Zähringer Lion (Orden vom Zähringer Löwen), Knight's Cross II. Class (BZL3b/BZ3b/BdZL3b)
  • Red Eagle Order, 4th Class with Swords[8]
  • Colonial Medal (Kolonial-Denkmünze Deutsch-Ostafrika 1905/07)


  • Exhibition on the first trip to Africa, Berlin in 1882
  • Honorary exhibition in 1927 in his memory (Reptilienhaus Zoo Berlin)
  • Exhibition 4x Afrika und zurück, Knauf-Museum Iphofen in 2011
  • On the occasion of his 150th birthday, the Atte Nationalgalerie Berlin honored the painter Wilhem Kuhnert with an exhibition (Der Löwen-Kuhnert) held in 2015.
  • In the autumn of 2018 (until 2019), the Schirn Art Center in Frankfurt, Germany, payed tribute in a comprehensive retrospective to this extraordinary artist, who became known as "the greatest African painter of his time", with the exhibition König der Tiere.



Animals and landscapes

Books by Kuhnert

Stachelschwein mit Jungtieren (Porcupine with Young), Plate from Brehms Tierleben, 1891
Löwenjunges (Lion cub)
  • Animal Portraiture (Text by Richard Lydekker), Frederick Warne & Co., London 1912
  • Wilhelm Kuhnert / Walter Heubach: 60 farbige Tafeln aus „Brehms Tierleben“, 1913
  • Im Lande meiner Modelle (In the Land of My Models), Leipzig 1918. Reissued by HardPress (2013)
  • Meine Tiere – Die Radierungen Wilhelm Kuhnerts (My Animals: The Etchings of Wilhelm Kuhnert), Berlin 1925
  • Vollständiger Katalog der Originalradierungen des Künstlers, Berlin 1927

Further works (selection)

  • Illustrations for the 1893 edition of The Royal Natural History
  • Illustrator of Mit Emin Pascha ins Herz von Afrika by Dr. Franz Stuhlmann, 1894
  • Illustrator of Brehms Tierleben. Allgemeine Kunde des Tierreichs (3rd Edition, 10 volumes, 1890–1893; finally 24 volumes in the 1920s).
    • It is the standard work for zoology par excellence, which first appeared in 1864. A new edition was published as early as 1876. Wilhelm Kuhnert was added by the publisher to the artistic team for the first time for the 3rd edition in 1890. His depictions were printed as color plates. But when this issue appeared Kuhnert was personally not yet been to Africa and on his expeditions. The experiences gained now flowed into the illustrations for the 4th edition of the “Brehm”. Kuhnert corrected mistakes due to his earlier lack of knowledge, but, and that is what is new and special about his animal pictures, he now showed the animals depicted for the first time in their exact lifelike biotopes and not in fantasy landscapes. This edition, which was subsequently no longer revised in the area of ​​its illustrations, gained the greatest academic recognition among laypeople and experts and continues to this day to be popular worldwide.
    • Read: Volume 1, 1890; Volume 2, 1890; Volume 3, 1891
  • Illustrator of Das Thierleben der Erde (three volumes) by Johann Wilhelm Haacke, 1901
  • Illustrator of In den Wildnissen Afrikas und Asiens – Jagderlebnisse von Dr. von Wissmann, 1901 (2nd Edition 1908)
  • Six colored photoplates for Deutsch-Ostafrika im Aufstand 1905/06 (Berlin 1909) by Gustav Adolf Graf von Götzen

Further reading

  • Hansjörg Werner: Wer war Wilhelm Kuhnert, große deutsche Tiermaler, 2004
  • Markus Mergenthaler: 4 x Afrika und zurück – Meisterwerke des Tiermalers und Illustrators von Brehms Tierleben Wilhelm Kuhnert, 2011

External links


  2. Wilhelm Kuhnert, namibiana.de
  3. Lorenz, Detlef (2000). Reklamekunst um 1900 (Advertising Art in the 1900s). Künstlerlexikon für Sammelbilder, Reimer-Verlag. 
  4. Ratten im Zelt, Löwen zu laut
  5. Portrait of an Artist: Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert – Artist, Naturalist – and Hunter
  6. Wilhelm Kuhnert (German, 1865-1926).
  7. Excerpt from 4 x Afrika und zurück by Markus Mergenthaler
  8. Deutscher Ordens-Almanach, 1908, p. 839