Artist
Justus Engelhardt Kühn
German painter

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Justus Engelhardt Kühn
German painter

Contributor

Justus Engelhardt Kuhn was the first recorded portrait painter in the entire South, and was also the first artist in any region to depict an African-American. 

Despite this momentous historical significance to American art, only a handful of his paintings are known to exist, and we know almost nothing about his private life! A nod to the importance of an art historical database, eh? It’s unclear how or when he arrived in the American Colonies, but we know he was German and that he became active in Maryland around 1708. He specialized in painting grandiose, but stylistically primitive portraits for inbred plantation aristocracy with secret Catholic sympathies.

Kuhn appears to have been an unrepentant kiss-ass, painting his sitters with palatial baroque estates in the background, in order to suggest to future generations that they were much wealthier than they actually were. The artist himself was also inclined to aristocratic pretensions.  Archives reveal that he made out like a bandit in his position as a church warden, with a hefty load of fine plateware and other furnishings.  He seems to have been quite the fop too, sporting a flashy wardrobe. It was said that nobody would guess from his accouterments that he was an artist. Pretending to be classier than you really are…a beloved American tradition, kept alive by the Kardashians. He may not have dressed like an artist, but he died like one. That is to say, in crippling debt. His widow Elizabeth was probably not as amused at the irony.