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 William Henry Dethlef Koerner  (1878 - 1938)

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Lived/Active: New Jersey/New York/Montana / Germany      Known for: genre-western-Indian, illustrator, photographer

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Lunden, Germany, William Koerner was a noted magazine and book illustrator whose work was characterized by strong draftsmanship and an eye for detail.

He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1880, and they settled in Clinton, Iowa. At age 20, he became a rapid-hand illustrator for the Chicago Tribune.  By 1901, he was attending classes at the Art Institute in Chicago, and four years later enrolled in the Art Students League in New York. When illustrator Howard Pyle accepted him for formal instruction, it was a major career boost.

In 1924, Koerner first went West, traveling in a seven passenger Buick. He camped extensively and continued to travel to California via the Santa Fe Railroad.  Zane Grey, popular novelist, used his illustrations in his novels.  Koerner worked primarily from New York but kept a summer studio near the Crow reservation in Montana.

He settled in Interlachen, New Jersey and built a studio there, which is replicated at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.


Biography from American Illustrators Gallery:
William Henry Dethlef Koerner is renowned as one of the master illustrators of America’s Wild West, ranking with Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Phillip R. Goodwin, and Harvey Dunn.

Koerner’s illustrations are known for his bold brushwork with a vibrant color palette which enabled his vigorous depictions of the ‘Great American West,’ emblemic images of those untamed territories.

Born in Lunden, Holstein, Germany, Koerner with his parents immigrated to Clinton, Iowa when he was three years old. Although he had little art training as a youth, his raw talent was always obvious to his parents and to everyone who viewed his sketches.

At the age of twenty, Koerner was hired by the Chicago Tribune as a staff artist at $5 per day, quite a respectable income in 1898. Shortly thereafter, he married and accepted a job as art editor for a brand new newspaper, the United States Daily. Unfortunately, that newspaper was shortlived, and as such, the young couple decided that New York could not survive without them and they moved east.

Once established in New York, Koerner was hired by Pilgrim Magazine to cover the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, it was then that he realized that he needed proper instruction to succeed further in his chosen field. He enrolled at the Art Students League for a two-year program between 1905-07, under the venerable George Bridgman, Norman Rockwell’s teacher.

A student colleague later persuaded Koerner to apply to Howard Pyle’s illustration school in Wilmington. Koerner’s exposure to Howard Pyle was significant, but his student colleagues also had much to offer and he shared techniques and styles with of N. C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Frank Schoonover and Stanley Arthurs.

While still a Pyle student, he rented a studio adjacent to Anton Otto Fischer and William Foster, and the interaction between these talented students proved mutually invaluable.

Howard Pyle passed away in 1911, and Bill Koerner was honored to write a eulogy tribute to his beloved mentor, and it was published in the New Amstel Magazine. A year later, the first exhibition by Pyle’s students was presented to the public, and Koerner’s works figured prominently, standing out amongst very strong competition.

In 1919, the Saturday Evening Post art editor invited Koerner to illustrate two articles with Western themes which proved to be a major turning point in his life. The articles, “The Covered Wagon” and “Traveling the Old Trails” entailed many Western frontier scenes, which up to that point, he had not experienced. Immediately Koerner thrust himself into researching the correct depictions of things totally unfamiliar.

The West immediately captured his imagination and captivated his soul and as a result, he dove into it’s history, tools and weapons, livestock and wildlife, architecture and building types and the eccentric characters who inhabited the plains and mountains. In the process, WHD Koerner became one of the best-known artists of the old West. He learned more about the visual elements than most seasoned cowboys could articulate and went to gain more knowledge of the authentic way to picture the West.

Trips with his family ensued as reconnaissance journeys to absorb the atmosphere in order to better portray reality. Ultimately, his paintings were imbued with an ambience true to the territories he was depicting, just as Pyle had taught.

From 1922 onwards, Koerner illustrated more than two-hundred and fifty stories with Western themes and painted over six hundred pictures for periodicals. He illustrated a number of books including those by author, Zane Grey (The Drift Fence and Sunset Pass) and Eugene M. Rhodes’s classic, Paso Por Aqui. Overall it is assumed that he completed nearly two-thousand illustrations of which about eighteen hundred were done for magazines, as well as advertisements for C. W. Post ‘s Grape-Nuts and Postum cereals.

In 1924, the Koerner family took a trip to Montana where his fame for Wild West paintings had grown widespread and he was received ‘home’ as a local cowboy. American’s always loved the notion of the frontier and a rugged lifestyle of independence. Koerner was one of the first to portray it accurately for mass consumption.

It is not surprising to learn that Maxfield Parrish was a great influence on Koerner and his use of color. Parrish illustrated “The Great Southwest” articles by Raymond Stannard Baker which appeared in Century Magazine. In those western landscapes Parrish burst forth with bold colors used in a way which had not been done before. The colors seemed unreal and even surreal; pure oranges, cobalt blue and purple skies, red suns with cadmium streams of light-a vision to behold and the Parrish images, like the West itself, captivated Bill Koerner.

A prolific and versatile artist-illustrator, ‘Big Bill’ Koerner’s work gained considerable visibility through his cover and story illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s, McClure’s Magazine and Red Book. He died in 1938 at fifty-eight, having been seriously ill and unable to paint for three years prior.©2004 Natioanl Museum of American Illustration, www.americanillustration.org

Biography from Art Cellar Exchange:

Although best known as a Western illustrator, William Henry Dethlef Koerner actually spent most of his life in the mid-west and eastern United States.  “Big Bill,” as he was called by friends, was the son of poor immigrants and lived in Clinton, Iowa for the first sixteen years of his life.  It was obvious at an early age that Koerner had tremendous talent as an artist and when he was 18, his father encouraged him to move to Chicago to pursue a career in this field.  Soon after relocating, Koerner was hired as a staff artist by the Chicago Tribune, earning $5 a week.  While in Chicago Koerner also studied at the Francis Smith Art Academy and the Art Institute.

Eager to aide their son’s success, the Koerner family decided to move to New York City in 1905, enabling William to study at the Art Students League.  After two years as a student in New York, the artist moved to Wilmington Delaware and became the pupil of well-known illustrator Howard Pyle.  Quickly, Koerner also developed a strong reputation as a magazine and book illustrator. 

Between 1919 and 1922 the Saturday Evening Post asked Koerner to illustrate two series: “Traveling the Old Trails,” and “the Covered Wagon.” As a result of these assignments, Koerner developed an interest in the West that would come to characterize the work of the rest of his career.  Koerner was commissioned for more than 500 paintings and drawings for more than 200 western stories and serials during the course of his life.

In the interest of authenticity, Koerner went to great lengths to investigate the American West.  Beginning with research in the New York Public library and Museum of Natural History, William also took many trips with his family to see the western states first hand.  At one point, he even spent time in a log cabin near an Indian reservation in Southern Montana where he had the opportunity to sketch his surroundings and also collect artifacts. 

Koerner continued painting Western scenes, becoming one of America’s most important Western illustrators of the 1920’s.  In 1978, forty years after his death, William Koerner’s re-constructed studio was dedicated as part of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, which is a division of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.  Works by William Henry Dethlef Koerner are also located in the following public collections:  Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas;  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington;  Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa;  Montana Historical Society, Helena.

His “Flower of the Flock,” was an illustration for a story of the same name by Jay Gelzer.  This illustration was published in the August 1921 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine.  The painting was completed just before “The Covered Wagon” series that made Koerner famous.  On the back of the canvas, the artist wrote to his publication editors, “Somethin’ll turn up.  Hain’t no call fur ya to look that a way.”


Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, III:
W.H.D Koerner was regarded as one of the most capable and prolific illustrators of the mythical American West. Born in Germany, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1880, settling in Iowa. Koerner made his way to Chicago in 1898 and worked as a newspaper illustrator for the Chicago Tribune, covering many assignments and developing a sure, rapid hand as a draftsman. By 1901 he was attending classes at the Chicago Art Institute, and four years later enrolled in the Art Students League in New York.

A major step in Koerner’s career occurred when he was accepted for formal instruction by Howard Pyle, the famed illustrator who had also taught N.C. Wyeth. In 1919, he built a permanent home and studio in Interlaken, New Jersey, and settled into a busy life as a famous artist much in demand.

In 1924, Koerner made is first trip to the trans-Missouri West by car a seven passenger Buick equipped with camping supplies. He went as far as Cooke City, Montana, near the northern section of Yellowstone Park. Koerner hiked in the high mountains and worked excitedly, inspired by his surrounding. In the next few years he traveled to California via the Santa Fe Railway, sketching throughout the Southwest. In 1927, he also participated in a pack trip into the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Koerner absorbed everything he saw, making countless sketches and using a camera to help him record details of cowboy life and the waning existence of the Indians on their reservations.

In 1928, Koerner’s fame as an illustrator was at its peak. Among the many authors for whom he illustrated was Zane Grey, the most popular western writer of his time. Grey was particularly fond of the artist’s work and owned some of the “square-ups,” or working drawings, which Koerner had done for his magazine stories. Another popular writer with whom Koerner worked in the 1920s was Hal G. Evarts; in 1928-29 he completed the illustrations for Evarts’ serial, “Tomahawk Rights,” about he settling of the Old Northwest.

ReSources include: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Dr. Rick Stewart, Hawthorne Publishing Company, 1986



Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery:
W.H.D. Koerner was brought to Clinton, Iowa in 1880 from his birthplace of Lunden, Germany. By 1896 he was a staff artist at the "Chicago Tribune", earning $5.00 a day. Following attendance at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Francis Smith Art Academy, he was art editor of a literary magazine in Battle Creek, Michigan. From 1905-1907 he studied at the Art Students League in New York City.

In 1907 he moved to Wilmington, Delaware, working until 1911 as an illustrator under the tutelage of Howard Pyle, along with N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn. By the 1920's, Koerner was one of the best known magazine and book illustrators. His study with Frank Breckenridge had provided the use of "broken color" and "commercial impressionism," and with these two assets, his palette became full and vibrant.

In 1922 Koerner was given the commission to illustrate Emerson Hough's "The Covered Wagon", published serially by the "Saturday Evening Post". By 1924 he was spending his summers in a log cabin near the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana. He also visited California and the Southwest. Koerner became truly the "illustrator of the eastern myth, of symbols of an earlier, less complicated, infinitely more moral land of ample time and room to roam."

He received $1,000.00 for cover illustration for the "Post", an extraordinary sum for the time. His painting garb was a smock over his knickers and golf socks with saddle shoes. After his death, hundreds of painting were in his studio, along with drawings, sketchbooks, and artifacts. His widow kept the studio intact until 1962, when exhibitions demonstrated that Koerner had been an important Western painter. The studio is now displayed intact at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming.

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