W.H.D. Koerner – Art of the West

W.H.D. Koerner's "Hard Winter" speaks to the cowboy's lot amid the bitterness of a Plains blizzard. (Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, Museum Purchase, 23.77)
W.H.D. Koerner's "Hard Winter" speaks to the cowboy's lot amid the bitterness of a Plains blizzard. (Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, Museum Purchase, 23.77)

Koerner posed his son, Billy, on horseback, weighting him down with coats and scarves, despite the miserable July heat

If any painting has ever captured the misery of cowboy and cattle, and the deadliness of Western weather, it is W.H.D. Koerner’s Hard Winter. Swaddled in coats and scarves, hands shoved deep in their pockets, cowboys push a herd in a blinding blizzard, their backs to the wind. It makes one shiver just to look at it. Hard Winter is both an authentic look at Western history and a prime example of the golden age of illustration.

“It’s beautifully done,” says Mindy Besaw, curator of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. “Somewhat monochromatic, yet the image still comes across. The paint is incredibly lush and vivid, even though it’s meant to be a flat, illustrative image, but it’s really well painted. It has some charm on many levels.”

Hired by the Chicago Tribune as an illustrator when he was 20, German-born William Henry David Koerner (his family settled in Iowa in 1880 when Koerner was 2) was a serious student of history and art. In 1907 Koerner moved to Wilmington, Del., to study under legendary illustrator Howard Pyle. By the 1920s, Koerner was making a name and a living by illustrating books and magazines from his studio in Interlaken, N.J. He took research seriously, often traveling West with his family, gathering artifacts, taking notes, making sketches, snapping photographs and experiencing the West.

The artist’s attention to detail is evident in Hard Winter. “Koerner had a similar experience when he was on a cattle drive in the spring, and, surprisingly, the weather was often cold, very blizzard-like,” Besaw says. “He was able to better depict it, get more of that emotion of the downtrodden cowboy. All the imagery in the narrative comes through.”

In 1932 The Saturday Evening Post commissioned Koerner to illustrate Hal G. Evarts’ “Short Grass,” a five-part serialized novel set in Texas. (Evarts stories inspired such seminal Western movies as Tumbleweeds, William S. Hart’s last starring role, and The Big Trail, John Wayne’s first starring role. The prolific Western writer died of a heart attack in 1934 at age 47.) Koerner would create 18 illustrations for Evarts’ novel after reading several passages and taking copious notes. “The snow eddied and whirled about the men,” Evarts wrote in one passage. “They were muffled to the eyes by their neck scarfs. Night had descended by the time they returned to the ranch house.”

Thus inspired, Koerner went to work. He posed his son, Billy, on horseback, weighing him down with coats and scarves, despite the miserable July heat. He then sketched preliminary images before creating Hard Winter, a 29-by-41-inch oil-on-canvas that appeared in the magazine as a black-and-white illustration.

“Today we don’t quite realize how important things like The Saturday Evening Post were for getting visual imagery, especially of Western imagery, across to the public, because we have TV,” Besaw says. “It’s hard for us to really understand what that was like.”

Koerner published 2,400 items before his death in 1938. A contemporary of N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn—and overshadowed by such illustrators today—Koerner often returned to Western images, including Madonna of the Prairie, perhaps his greatest work.

“He really was a pretty remarkable artist,” Besaw says, “and one of the top artists in that golden age of illustration.”

W.H.D. Koerner’s Hard Winter is housed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Whitney Gallery. To view it online or to purchase a print, visit www.bbhc.org.

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