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Spirit of the Old West : Paintings by early 20th-Century illustrator W.H.D. Koerner at the Gene Autry museum capture feeling of frontier and vitality of pioneers.

January 28, 1994|NANCY KAPITANOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

Since the first trappers, traders and miners moved across this continent in the early 1800s, artists have followed to record heartfelt, stirring impressions of the American West. Frederic Remington and Charles Rus sell are probably the most widely known and celebrated Western artists. But, there have been others who have contributed to our understanding of life in the West's mountains, deserts and plains.

In the early part of this century, W.H.D. Koerner was an illustrator for magazines of the day such as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and Ladies Home Journal. In 1922, the Saturday Evening Post asked him to illustrate a serialized short story by Emerson Hough, "The Covered Wagon."

Thus began a continual stream of Western story illustrations by Koerner (1878-1938), who would base his images on first-hand knowledge. After the success of "The Covered Wagon," Koerner made several trips from his New Jersey home--often with his wife, daughter and son--through different areas of the West, taking in and making sketches of everything from cattle drives to Indian customs.

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About 50 of the paintings he did to illustrate the Saturday Evening Post's Western stories are on view at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in the exhibit, "The Art of W.H.D. Koerner." That show shares the George Montgomery Gallery with the "Hubbard Collection of Western Art." It includes two immaculately detailed, larger-than-life contemporary bronze sculptures of Plains Indians by Dave McGary of New Mexico, works by Remington and Russell's last major works: two panoramic murals, each more than 20 feet long, conveying "The History of the West I and II."

"Daddy sure used color in his paintings," said Santa Barbara resident Ruth Koerner Oliver, the artist's daughter, who made her first trip West with her father in 1924 when she was 11. "Some of those artists in the early days just worked in black and white because the paintings were reproduced in black and white in those magazines. But daddy always worked on the large canvas and used oil for all the color.

"It's really a sense of complementary color working. If you see a red, you'll see a green right next to it. If you see a blue, you'll see an orange. And his horses are not brown or black--they're a shade of orange which is really brown. The highlights on the horse are not white, they're blue. So the orange and blue--that's the complementary part."

Oliver has been instrumental in organizing shows of her father's work in museums around the country for 30 years. The paintings, sketches and magazine covers on display here are from her collection and that of her son, Fal Oliver Jr.

The Koerner collection "is one we've been familiar with through Ruth Koerner Oliver," said Michael Duchemin, the Autry's history curator, emphasizing that many of Koerner's paintings present non-stereotypical images of the West. Among works of homesteaders, wagons moving west and pioneer women are scenes depicting Indian and early Spanish California life. The Indian and California compositions, such as the illustrations for the 1932 story "Ranchero" by Stewart Edward White, have rarely been shown in public before.

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Koerner was born in Germany in 1878, and moved with his family to Clinton, Iowa, two years later. Encouraged to become an artist by a grammar schoolteacher who recognized his drawing ability, his first artistic job was to paint portraits of the family's cow on the sides of milk wagons. He received $5 for each head. At age 20, he moved to Chicago where the art editor of the Chicago Tribune gave him a job illustrating news events that paid $5 a week.

After attending art school in Chicago, where he met his wife, Lillian--an artist who deferred her talents to his--they moved to Michigan. There Koerner became art editor of a magazine, and he did illustrations for the Post and Kellogg companies' breakfast cereal advertisements. He also studied at the Art Students League in New York, and with Howard Pyle, known as "the Father of American Illustration."

Oliver said the family "lived in New Jersey, halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, because that's where the publishers were. The big Curtis Publishing Co. was in Philadelphia, so it made it easy for daddy to deliver his illustrations. He only had maybe three or four weeks to make the illustrations, paint the pictures and deliver them.

"The magazine would send my father a story. He would read it and pick out a part (to illustrate) that he thought would make people read the story. You have to remember that this was long before radio and television, so people had to read in those days. The magazines were in their prime years.

"Then he composed a small sketch for each illustration. Several versions might follow to develop the composition.

"Daddy would usually do what they would call a set of illustrations. It would be one large canvas, say 28 by 40 or 36 by 30 (inches). Then he'd do what they call a vignette, and then a spot."

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