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 William Balfour Ker  (1877 - 1918)

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Lived/Active: New York/Ontario / Canada      Known for: illustration, genre painting

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William Balfour Ker
An example of work by Balfour Ker
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
William Balfour Ker was born in Dunville, Ontario, Canada on July 25, 1877 of Scottish heritage. His mother, Lily Florence Bell, was a first cousin of Alexander Graham Bell. The Ker family immigrated to the U.S. in 1880. His early education and training are unknown. As a young man, Ker was an an avowed Socialist, his art often reflecting his political beliefs.

In the 1890's, he became a naturalized citizen and a student of the great illustrator Howard Pyle. During this time he met a fellow student of Pyle's, Mary Ellen Sigsbee, daughter of Charles D. Sigsbee, captain of the USS Maine [Spanish-American War]. Politically, Mary Ellen was as far to the left as he was was to the right. She and Ker fell in love, and despite her father's vigorous objections, the couple eloped in 1898.

After their marriage they lived in Greenwich Village, where they worked out of a small art studio. A son, David, was born in 1906. The following year, they packed up their infant son and went to Paris to paint. Ker's style was influenced by other Social Realists of the time, particularly Diego Rivera, who was in Paris at the same time.

By the time they returned to New York a couple of years later, the marriage was failing, ending in divorce in 1910. Ker married model Josephine Phillips, with whom he had one daughter and three sons. The daughter, Yosene Ker, grew up to marry Lathrop Weld and bore him three children. The youngest was Susan Ker Weld, known to moviegoers as Tuesday Weld. The teen idol of the 1950s and '60s is the granddaughter of William Balfour Ker and Josephine Phillips.

Mary Ellen went back to her maiden name of Sigsbee and spent the next couple of years being both a mother and a bread-winner. She drew political cartoons for Arthur Brisbane's newspaper. She was very socially conscious and very feminist. Suffragette posters are probably her best known works. She later married Anton Otto Fischer, Marine Artist, who adopted her son David. In 1914 she gave birth to a daughter, Katrina Fischer. David was always a sickly child and died in 1922, having never reached his 16th birthday.

One of Ker's better known paintings was "From the Depths". It was reprinted in several books and magazines, and Life magazine sold copies of the picture for one dollar, advertising it as suitable for framing. In this 1905 painting, artist William Balfour Ker captured the fear of radical revolution from below that many middle- and upper-class Americans held during the Progressive Era (1900-1917). Ker, a socialist, did the painting to illustrate a novel, "The Silent War", (1906), by John Ames Mitchell (1845-1918). Mitchell, founder and longtime editor of Life magazine, used some of Ker's revolutionary drawings to illustrate articles in his magazine.

Ker clearly intended this painting to inflame class divisions between productive workers and the wealthy upper class, as represented by strong but exploited workers trapped beneath the floor and well-to-do dancers at a society ball. Life sold copies of the picture for a dollar, advertising it as suitable for framing. Socialists renamed the painting "The Hand of Fate" and publicized it widely. Critics discussed this and other Ker illustrations in magazines such as "The Outlook" and "The Arena", while muckraking socialist Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) reprinted it in his book "The Cry for Justice" (1915). That such a work could be painted, published, and widely discussed suggests that class divisions in the Progressive Era were real and widespread.

BOOKS with Illustrations by William Balfour Ker:
"DR. THORNE'S IDEA" by John Ames Mitchell - book, originally published as "GLORIA VICTIS" - New York Life Publishing Co., 1910. A science fiction/fantasy volume noted in Bleiler.
"THE SILENT WAR" by John Ames Mitchell - book, Life Publishing Company, New York. 1906. "A socialist tale of masses versus the millionaires."
"THE CALL OF THE CARPENTER", by Bouck White - Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & company, 1913.

BOOKS referencing William Balfour Ker:
"THE CRY FOR JUSTICE - An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest; The Writings of Philosophers, Poets, Novelists, Social Reformers, and Others Who Have Voiced in the Struggle Against Social Injustice" edited by Upton Sinclair. Introduction by Jack London - The John C. Winston Company, Philadelphia, 1915. 891 pages, 36 pages of plates, each illustrated with reproductions of social protest in art. Artists include: William Balfour Ker; Kathe Kollwitz; Paul Gustav Dore; Walter Crane; etc. Literary contents include: Toil; The Chasm; The Outcast; Out Of The Depths; Revolt; Martyrdom; Jesus; The Church; The Voice Of The Ages; Mammon; War; Country; Children; Humor; The Poet; Socialism; & The New Day.

MAGAZINES with Illustrations by William Balfour Ker:
"HER STORY" by Churchill Williams and William Balfour Ker - article, Scribner's Magazine, 1906. - from 'Scarce Magazines and Periodicals of the 19th and Early 20th Century.'
"UNCLE BIAL'S BONDS" by Margarita Spalding Gerry and William Balfour Ker - article, Harper's Magazine, 1916. - from 'Scarce Magazines and Periodicals of the 19th and Early 20th Century.'
"METROPOLITAN NIGHTS" a series of short stories by Sir (Edward Montague) Compton MacKenzie
' The Night of the Blind Decoy ' - Nash's Magazine Apr 1914
' The Night of the Uncommunicative Greek ' - Nash's Magazine May 1914
' The Night of the Telegraphic Window ' - Nash's Magazine Jun 1914
' The Night of the Deadly Marionettes ' - Nash's Magazine Jul 1914
' The Night of the Intrusive Acrobat ' - Nash's Magazine Sep 1914
Everybody's Magazine - April 1916 ed. - Howard Wheeler - Ridgway Company (cover by Ker)

Submitted April 2004 and written by Carolyn Haynes, Jacksonville, Oregon

She credits internet research ( and census records. Family information comes from extensive correspondence with Cheryl Sigsbee, grand-niece of Mary Ellen Sigsbee, with forwarded messages from Wm. Balfour Ker's grand nephew (name withheld).

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