Portrait of Friedrich Kuhlbars

Portrait of Friedrich Kuhlbars

1915Oil on canvas66 × 57.8 cmTartu Art Museum

On 20 July 1915, Konrad Mägi, then in Viljandi, wrote his friend Marie Reisik: “I’m currently painting another old man, Fr. Kuhlbars, which will soon be finished. The old man himself is very content and happy that the picture is very plastic and on point. But for me personally, the whole undertaking gives relatively little pleasure.”

Friedrich Kuhlbars, a teacher and poet living in Viljandi, was 73 when he sat for Mägi (his birthday was in August). It was probably a commissioned work, since Mägi did not paint other portraits of men of this age. The fact that Mägi was under an obligation is perhaps evident from the grumbling in Mägi’s letter and a certain restraint in the work itself – in contrast to his female portraits, Mägi is more realistic and detailed here, preoccupied with bringing out all sorts of everyday nuances. The level of refinement of the background stands out, since Mägi generally left the background neutral or depicted multicoloured fabrics and draperies for decorative effect. Mägi painted Kuhlbars in the latter’s study in his home. The detailed painting of books and shelves is an exception and may also suggest the model’s preference rather than that of the artist, since adding intellectual elements helped better build an image of Kuhlbars as educator.

It is also not known whether Kuhlbars kept the painting. In spring 1916, Mägi displayed the work at the exhibition of the Estonian Art Society, which may indicate that the work remained with Mägi, but he exhibited other portraits at the same exhibition (such as the one of Irmgard (Ida) Menning) and so that limits the drawing of more extensive conclusions.