Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill capture the Kaiser

April 14th, 2012  |  Published in April 2012, Features  |  2 Comments

Henry François Farny (American, b.1847, d.1916), THE UNWELCOME GUESTS, Cincinnati Art Museum, Bequest of Harry S. and Eva Belle Leyman, Accession #: 1943.14

Ten years ago when I was teaching Intro to Painting at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, I was cutting through the galleries on the second floor of the Art Museum when “The Unwelcome Guests” by Henry Farny suddenly caught my eye for the first time. There was a luminosity in that yellow sky that jumped off the canvas and grabbed my attention. That was the hook. I stopped, looked and was drawn into the painting by sweeping diagonals; the cold vast windswept landscape of the frontier in winter punctuated by figures and horses held together in a dynamic tension not only by the composition, but by the narrative as well.

“The Unwelcome Guests” depicts a Native American cautiously approaching a group of white hunters huddled around a campfire in front of a dug-out shelter in the side of a hill. Tension hangs thick in the air as evidenced by a trio of indians on horseback looming ominously in the distance and the body language of the white men, rifles in their laps. Even the horses tethered near the wagon appear ready to bolt at the slightest sudden move. I was reveling in the technical brilliance of this painting; the luminosity of color in low diffused light, virtuosity of the brush work, masterful use of figure / ground relationships, negative space and encapsulating the defining narrative moment. Then I saw “him”. The anomaly.

It took a moment for me to notice because he blended in with the dark tones of the shelter, but standing upright between the two suspicious hunters by the fire is an improbable character dressed in garb not unlike that of a Prussian Field Marshal! Unarmed and wearing a monocle, a full length, double-breasted, slate blue, woolen great coat, and atop his head what appears to be the signature spiked pickelhauber of the Imperial German army with canvas field cover, he looks more like a prisoner than a member of the hunting party. At that moment, my perception shifted and suddenly I was carried off on a narrative tangent of my own. In fact, it wasn’t until I began writing this essay that I bothered to learn what Farny actually titled this painting. For the past decade, I’ve always referred to it as: “Kit Carson and Buffalo Bill capture the Kaiser”.

I was so amused by this digression that I followed the idea trail further, postulating how the course of human history would have been indelibly altered had the Kaiser’s hunting excursion in the United States been ambushed by frontiersmen and the emperor himself sold to a local indian tribe for say, a couple of dozen buffalo hides. No world wars, no arms race, no cold war, no global warming.

I’d always assumed Farny (like his contemporaries, Remington, Sharp and Russell) was chronicling the wild west, packaging its history and selling it to the public while westward expansion was quickly erasing it. To my surprise, in many of his paintings Farny wasn’t recording history at all but inventing a very convincing narrative. His masterful and compelling use of the medium pulls the viewer in and creates a visual dialogue which allows the storyline to unfold in an open ended fashion. It doesn’t matter what the artist’s intent was, he gives you the elements of the story and you’re free to draw whatever conclusions (if any) you like. What’s important isn’t whether or not the character is Kaiser Wilhelm, but the train of thought that occurred by my thinking that it was.

By following my own invented narrative of the painting, I began to examine and question the validity of history itself. We interpret events through the subjective prism of our own personal perception which in turn informs our reality. We generally tend to regard history as an objective and accurate recording of events played out along a timeline. Accurate and objective according to whom exactly? History is written by the victors and whoever is in control. Change the control grid and you change history. Perhaps the most authentic account of any given event is the one recorded closest to when it occurred, but even then, how can you be certain? No matter how objective one tries to be, the accounting will always be colored by subjective perception at best, and political agenda at worst. History is continually being revisited, reevaluated, revised and rewritten. The best we can hope for is a contextual consensus.

Continuing down the conceptual rabbit hole, I then considered the implications of viewing this painting some 125 years out of context. In 1887, it was a vibrant contemporaneous depiction (contrived or not) of a wild frontier still in existence. Today it’s a film still from a John Ford movie, the characters no more real than the dim reflections in the tarnished silver of an old mirror. What’s poignant for me in this image isn’t the depiction of a bygone era or the wistful nostalgia that it conjures up, but the tangential path my mind races down in response to the anomaly. The infinite expanse of possibility that exists between the infinitesimal spaces of our perceived reality is the place where art grows.

P-1002 Kevin T. Kelly "Dear John" Acrylic on Canvas 60 x 81" ©2010 Kevin T. Kelly

No, that’s not Kaiser Wilhelm by the fire. According to the museum’s didactic panel, the figure has been identified as Edward Flynn, a Cincinnati newspaper editor and close friend of the artist who modeled for many of his paintings. He’s not sporting a pickelhauber either. The helmet was a gestalt conclusion I inferred from the rest of his attire and appearance. I saw the Kaiser in this painting because subconsciously I wanted to or more importantly because I needed to. He showed up as a lesson in helping me to better understand my own creative process. He taught me to fearlessly follow those paths of “What If”, because in the end, it’s all grist for the creative mill.

–Kevin T. Kelly


  1. David Eilers says:

    October 3rd, 2012at 6:24 pm(#)

    (editor’s note: AEQAI cannot confirm the claims in the following comment)

    In case you didn’t know, the Kaiser was an acquaintance of Farny’s, having obtained (purchased/commissioned?) “The Bear Hunt” from Farny. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt responded to a Farny letter with a letter of his own in 1902 professing some friendly jealousy that Roosevelt only got a photograph of a painting and not the real thing. Based on the casual nature of the letter, it seems Roosevelt and Farny were better friends than I suspected. There were additional social links between Roosevelt, RW Raymond, Anton Eilers, and Farny. It is an area I am personally researching (I am part of the Farny/Eilers clan); so, I think your observation is interesting.

  2. Kevin T. Kelly says:

    October 4th, 2012at 6:49 pm(#)

    Thanks for the information David. Truth, as always. is stranger than fiction. I appreciate your taking the time to post this response.

    Warmest regards,

    Kevin T. Kelly