1878 - 1938
William Henry Dethlef Koerner is renowned as one of the master illustrators of the American West along with the likes of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Koerner's illustrations are known for their bold brushwork and vibrant color palette; the two come together to support his vigorous and honest depictions of the 'Great American West.'
Born in Lunden, Holstein, Germany, he immigrated at three years old to Clinton, Iowa. In 1898, he was hired by theChicago Tribune as a staff artist at $5 per day, having obvious talent, but very little training. A short time later, he married and accepted a job as art editor of a short-lived newspaper, the United States Daily. Soon the young couple determined that New York could not survive further without them, and sure enough Koerner was hired by Pilgrim Magazine to cover the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Realizing that he needed instruction to succeed further in his career, he enrolled at the Art Students League in NYC (1905-07) and studied under the venerable George Bridgeman. Not long afterwards, another student persuaded Koerner to apply to Howard Pyle's school in Wilmington where he was admitted in 1907. The exposure to Pyle was significant. His student colleagues also had much to offer and he was exposed to the likes of N. C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Frank Schoonover and Stanley Arthurs. He rented a studio just adjacent to Anton Otto Fischer and William Foster and the interaction between all these talented art students proved mutually invaluable.
In 1911, Howard Pyle passed away and Bill Koerner wrote a tribute to his mentor, which was published in the New Amstel Magazine. A year later in Wilmington, the first exhibition by Pyle's students was shown and Koerner was prominently included. Between the years 1919 and 1922, the Post art editor asked Koerner to illustrate two series of articles with Western themes; this proved to be a major turning point in his career.
The articles, "The Covered Wagon" and "Traveling the Old Trails," entailed capturing Western scenes he had never actually experienced. Thus, Koerner began researching Western life for the correct depictions of these new, unfamiliar subjects. This work captured his imagination and his soul, and as a result, he became one of the best-known artists of the old West.
He thereafter went to great lengths to gain knowledge of the authentic way to picture things Western, with frequent ensuing trips West with his family. His paintings were imbued with an ambience true to the territories he was depicting. From 1922 onwards, Koerner illustrated more than 250 stories with Western themes and painted over 600 pictures for periodicals. He also illustrated a number of books including those by authors Zane Grey (The Drift Fence and Sunset Pass) and Eugene M. Rhodes's classic, Paso Por Aqui. It is assumed that Koener completed nearly 2,500 illustrations of which about 1,800 were done for magazines. He also illustrated advertisements for C. W. Post's Grape-Nuts and Postum cereals.
Koerner's studies with Pyle, coupled with his exposure to a circle of first class students, provided him with the impetus to create images of our popular culture that reached an enormous mass-circulation audience. A few years later, in 1924, the Koerner family took a trip to Montana, where his fame for Wild West paintings had preceded him.
It is not surprising to learn that Maxfield Parrish was a great influence on Koerner, particularly for his use of color. Parrish illustrated The Great Southwest for Century Magazine, a series of articles by Ray S. Baker. In those western landscapes Parrish burst forth with bold colors in a way which had not been done hitherto. The colors almost seemed unreal, surreal. They were pure oranges, cobalt blue and purple skies, red suns with cadmium streams of light - a vision to behold that 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, Ladies' Home Journal, Harper's, McClure's and Redbook. He died in 1938 at 58 years of age after three years of serious illness - bedridden and unable to paint.