In the late nineteenth century, any young artist interested in painting animal subjects was encouraged to visit one of the many zoos which were fast becoming popular across Europe. The zoos of Dresden and Berlin were by far the most well-known, and had provided "models" for many important German animal painters such as Paul Meyerheim, who was Wilhelm Kuhnert’s teacher. While capturing the exotic appeal of lions, tigers, leopards, and other creatures, the resulting works were often based on aged or sickly animals, and the painted African landscapes they inhabited were the result of pure imagination. Dissatisfied with these methods, Kuhnert followed the example of Germany’s celebrated animal painter Richard Friese, who advocated the study of wild animals in their native habitats. In 1891, Kuhnert would become one of the first European artists to travel to the German colonies of East Africa (present day Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and part of Mozambique), where he made oil and pencil sketches of the wildlife and terrain. Upon his return to his Berlin studio, he used those sketches to create his panoramic paintings of the savanna. By the early 1900s, demand for his impressive depictions led Kuhnert to return to the German colonies, as well as the British territory of Sudan, on expeditions that lasted months or longer than a year. By then, he had refined his working process in order to create powerful works like Grollende Löwen
painted in 1912 after his fourth and final trip.
Of all of Kuhnert’s animal subjects, lions were a particular favorite, and his deep connection with the animal earned him the nickname "Lion-Kuhnert." In the present work, he captures the animals as seen from slightly below, emphasizing their regal posture as they open long-whiskered muzzles to growl (a sound the artist vividly recorded hearing in his expedition diaries), focusing their amber eyes on prey or unseen danger. Using strokes of color and texture, Kuhnert’s light brush forms the great cats and the variegated tones of their manes – as well as the meager shade cast by twisted branches against dark scrabbly ground, and the dry, brown plains receding for miles into the distance.
Throughout Kuhnert’s lifetime, his compositions were eagerly sought after by collectors throughout Europe and the United States. By the early twentieth century, Kuhnert’s wildlife paintings were reproduced in natural history books, advertisements, school publications, and scientific texts; his work shaping a popular understanding of the wildlife, landscape, and culture of Africa. More recently, Kuhnert’s powerful imagery and its cultural influence is at the center of the Schirn Kunsthalle’s Frankfurt exhibition King of the Animals, Wilhelm Kuhnert and the Image of Africa (October 2018-January 2019) which brings new insight into this fascinating artist and his subject.