Born in Lunden, Germany, Koerner emigrated to the United States with his family in 1880. They settled in Clinton, Iowa where young Koerner grew up pursuing his interest and talent for art. By age twenty, Koerner had earned enough money selling his oil paintings and watercolors to enable him to move to Chicago to pursue an art career. He soon found a job as illustrator with the Chicago Tribune at five dollars per week. By 1902 he had worked his way to the position of Assistant Art Editor at the handsome salary of forty-five dollars per week. During his time at the Tribune, Koerner took classes at the Chicago Art Institute and the Francis Smith Art Academy.
William Henry Dethlef Koerner Illustration drawing for Lucky Devil
William Henry Dethlef Koerner, Drawing for Lucky Devil, Charcoal on Paper, c. 1920, 19″ x 26.75″
During his Chicago years, Koerner married a fellow art student, Lillian Lusk. They moved in 1903 to Lillian’s hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan where Koerner worked briefly for Pilgrim magazine. The years 1905 to 1907 found the couple in New York with Koerner enrolled at the Art Students League. The most important component of his education began in 1907 when the legendary illustrator, Howard Pyle, accepted him as a student. Working in Pyle’s Wilmington, Delaware studio, Koerner not only benefited from the master’s instruction, but also enjoyed the professional company of Pyle’s other famous protégés including N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn.
During the four years he studied with Pyle, Koerner established himself as a capable and sought-after illustrator. Over the next two decades he executed more than 400 commissioned paintings and created drawings for nearly 200 stories for the leading magazines of the day including Harper’s, Collier’s, McCall’s, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and Saturday Evening Post. (After 1929, Koerner worked exclusively for Saturday Evening Post.) Book illustrations included Zane Grey’s The Drift Fence and Sunset Pass, and Euguene Rhodes’ classic, Paso por Aqui. In 1919, already earning a very comfortable living, the Koerners settled with their two children in suburban Interlaken, New Jersey where the artist lived for the rest of his life.
Between 1919 and 1922, the Saturday Evening Post asked Koerner to illustrate two Western story series, Traveling the Old Trails and The Covered Wagon. Through his extensive research for the series he became enthralled with the landscape and stories of the West. Thereafter western subjects became the focus of his career. Initially, Koerner searched New York libraries and museums for visual references of the West, but in 1924 he made the first of many trips to the plains and mountains. Often in the company of his family, combining work and vacation, he made numerous sketches, took photographs, and collected artifacts which he used to create paintings back in his New Jersey studio.
Along with N.C. Wyeth and J.C. Leyendecker, Koerner’s style of illustration virtually defines that art in the 1910s and 1920s. He combined bold compositions with clean, crisp draftsmanship, and strong, even light to create an almost heroic feel in his paintings. Although compositions could be somewhat static, the paintings are enlivened by vibrant color laid in with a post-impressionist technique called “broken color” which he learned from Henry Breckinridge, who also was Normal Rockwell’s teacher.
Koerner died in 1938-still in the fullness of career at age 59-from a cerebral hemorrhage. Lillian kept the contents of the studio intact until 1962, and in 1978 the studio was reconstructed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.