W.H.D. (William Henry Dethlef) 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 Clinton, 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 the Francis Smith Art Academy, and four years later enrolled in the Art Students League in New York.
Koerner then moved to Wilmington, Delaware, working until 1911 as an illustrator under the tutelage of Howard Pyle, along with N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn. 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. His studies with Frank Breckenridge had provided the use of “broken color” and “commercial impressionism,” and with these two assets, his palette was full and vibrant.
In 1924, Koerner made his first trip to the trans-Missouri West via 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 surroundings. 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. There, he 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. He became the “illustrator of the eastern myth, of symbols of an earlier, less complicated, infinitely more moral land of ample time and room to roam.” His images of his favorite subjects, cowboys and Indians, couples, round-ups, and the various dramas surrounding them, enhance the legend of the American West that continues to fascinate people around the globe.
During the course of his life, Koerner received commissions for more than 500 paintings and drawings for more than 200 western stories and serials. After his death, hundreds of paintings were kept in his studio, along with drawings, sketchbooks, and artifacts. His widow kept the studio intact until 1962, when exhibitions demonstrated that Koerner had become known as an important Western painter. The studio is now displayed, still intact, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming.
Koerner’s works are also held by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Montana Historical Society in Helena.