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W. Langdon Kihn papers, 1904-1990, bulk 1904-1957

W. Langdon Kihn papers, 1904-1990, bulk 1904-1957

Kihn, W. (Wilfred) Langdon, 1898-1957

Portrait painter, Illustrator

Collection Information

Size: 8.5 linear feet

Summary: The papers of painter and illustrator W. Langdon Kihn measure approximately 8.5 linear feet and date from 1904-1990, with the bulk of the materials dating from 1904-1957. Papers document illustrator and painter W. Langdon Kihn's career and travels associated with his interests and work in documenting the native American tribal nations of the United States and Canada in portraiture and writings. Found here are biographical materials, voluminous correspondence, memoirs and writings, one travel diary, printed material, financial records, three sketchbooks, sketches, and photographs. Biographical materials include address books, membership cards, exhibition and price lists, legal and travel documents, as well as biographical notes. Additional biographical sketches are found in the Writings and Notes series.

Correspondence is the largest series in the collection, almost half of the papers. In addition to letters to W. Langdon Kihn, this series include both originals and drafts of his outgoing letters; letters to his wife Helen from friends; third party business correspondence between his father, Alfred Kihn, and various parties undertaken on his son's behalf; and third party correspondence addressed to his friend and colleague, the Canadian ethnographer, Marius Barbeau. In addition to Barbeau, significant correspondents include Constance Lindsay Skinner, Chester and Maud Dale, Sir Henry Wellcome, Pierre and Marie "May" Lecompte du Noüy, and Reginald and Gladys Laubin. Although there is little correspondence with other artists, those represented with cards and letters in this collection include Boris Artzybasheff, Maynard Dixon, Olin Dows, Thornton Oakley, and Kihn's summer art school partner, Gus Wiggins. Correspondence with Franklin L. Fisher, Chief of National Geographic Magazine's Illustrated Division, and Matthew W. Striling, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution dominate the period spanning from 1935-1952, the years of Kihn's close association with the National Geographic Society.

Writings and notes includes manuscripts and typescripts of articles, poems, lectures, memoirs, and other writings by Kihn and others. There is one travel diary dated circa 1924-1925, and numerous writings about Kihn's travels and documentation of native American Indians.

Printed materials include exhibition catalogs, travel brochures, and magazine and newspaper clippings. Also found here are copies of Kihn's illustrations for books by other authors, including, "Beaver, Kings and Cabins," by Constance Lindsay Skinner, as well as proofs from the National Geographic series on American Indians arranged by geographic location. Financial records consist of invoices and receipts related to Kihn's artwork, traveling, and exhibitions.

Three sketchbooks and loose sketches include illustrated field notes and other drawings that document Kihn's travels and of native Americans. Photographs are of Kihn, and of Kihn at work. There are also photographs of Kihn's artwork.

Biographical/Historical Note

W. Langdon Kihn (1898-1957) was a painter and illustrator from Hadlyme, Conn. Full name Wilfred Langdon Kihn (sometimes cited as William Langdon Kihn). Specialized in pictorial representations of the lives, history, and customs of American Indians. Married to Helen Butler.


Donated 1959 by Helen Kihn, widow of W. Langdon Kihn. Pages 1-8 of Kihn's memoirs and the transcript of the complete memoirs was donated in 1994 by Phyllis Kihn, daughter of W. Langdon Kihn.

A Finding Aid to the W. Langdon Kihn Papers,
bulk 1904-1957
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical Note
Born in Brooklyn, New York, W. (Wilfred) Langdon Kihn (1898-1959) is best known for his portraits of American Indians and illustrations of their history, culture and rapidly disappearing way of life. In 1919, Kihn joined his art teacher Winold Reiss on a trip to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana where he completed his first series of portraits. This marked the beginning of his lifelong career of documenting the tribal nations of the United States and Canada. Through commissions from Canadian and American Railroad companies, Kihn spent much of the 1920s traversing both the United States and Northwest Canada where he had the opportunity to record the members and lives of various tribes. During this period, his paintings also traveled the country in a one man exhibition of his American Indian portraits, which was arranged by the Brooklyn Museum, and traveled to about 40 institutions in the United States. However his largest and best known commission was a project to research and paint North American Indians for serial publication in
National Geographic
. Kihn received the commission in 1935 and his association with the organization spanned two decades, culminating in the 1955 exhibition of his work at the National Geographic Museum, Washington, D.C, and the publication
Indians of the Americas
, with copius illustrations derived from Kihn's paintings and drawings.
In addition to his travels and work in North America, Kihn enjoyed a brief stint between 1929-1932 painting in France and Spain. Upon his return he focused upon obtaining commercial work and enjoyed success as an illustrator, whose work was featured in
Beaver, Kings and Cabins
(1933) and
Flat Tail
(1935), among other books. Kihn also wrote articles about his travels; amateur painters, whom he specialized in teaching; and American Indian legends and tribal cultures. Between 1948-1951 he was a partner in the Guy Wiggins-W. Langdon Kihn Art School in Essex, Connecticut. He married Helen Butler in 1920 and in between their travels the couple eventually settled in East Haddam, Connecticut. W. Langdon Kihn died in 1957.
The collection is arranged into 7 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, circa 1916-1957 (Box 1; 0.4 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, circa 1904-1959 (Boxes 1-5; 4.0 linear feet)
Series 3: Writings and Notes, circa 1920-1990 (Box 5-6; 1.0 linear feet)
Series 4: Printed Material, circa 1920-1957 (Boxes 6-8, OV 10; 2.2 linear feet)
Series 5: Financial Records, 1920-1955 (Box 8; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 6: Sketchbooks and Sketches, circa 1922-1955 (Boxes 8-9, OV 10; 0.5 linear feet)
Series 7: Photographs, circa 1920-1955 (Box 9; 5 folders)
Donated 1959 by Helen Kihn, widow of W. Langdon Kihn. Pages 1-8 of Kihn's memoirs and the transcript of the complete memoirs was donated in 1994 by Phyllis Kihn, daughter of W. Langdon Kihn.
Processing Information
Much of the collection was microfilmed upon receipt, and merged and re-processed, arranged and described by Kathleen Brown in 2008 as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art Digitization and Processing Project.

Additional Forms Available

The bulk of the collection is available on 35 mm microfilm reels 3701-3713 at Archives of American Art offices, and through interlibrary loan. Researchers should note that the arrangement of the collection as described in this finding aid may not reflect the order of the collection on microfilm.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

W. Langdon Kihn papers, 1904-1990, bulk 1904-1957. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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