This work by Henry Koerner depicts dozens of clowns, freaks, acrobats, and other performers, recalling the nearby influence of Coney Island.

Who was Henry Koerner?

Five facts you should know about the artist

By Zoe Fortin

Henry Koerner lived a life marked by war and loss but also tremendous success and acclaim. Under the Overpass, Rose Arbor, The Sea and The Showboat are four of Koerner’s masterpieces we have had the privilege to place into great collections. Here, they serve as starting points to explore the artist’s incredible life and work.

1. Henry Koerner suffered great loss in his life

This work by Henry Koerner depicts two women with kids under a train overpass
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Under the Overpass, 1949. Oil on masonite. 30 x 38 inches. Signed on the reverse. Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York.

Born in Vienna, Henry Koerner fled his native Austria in 1938 when Hitler annexed the country and found his way to Brooklyn, New York, after going through Italy. When in 1946, he returned to Vienna for the first time, the artist discovered his entire family had died; in an email dated April 29, 2011, his son Joseph Leo Koerner noted: “I do not know if he actually knew this, but they were in fact transported from Vienna, via Minsk, to a death camp called Maly Trostinec, in Belarus. I found the train schedule of that train, from Vienna all the way there, and the names of my grandparents.[1]” Henry Koerner’s losses may have inspired Under the Overpass, in which a train can be seen on a bridge, under which a woman, possibly the artist’s mother, is depicted crying.

2. He started his career designing war posters and sketching during the Nuremberg trials

Poster by Henry Koerner showing a pointer finger at a man
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Someone Talked!. c. 1943. Photolithograph. 32 ¾ x 23 ½ inches. Collection of The Museum of Modern Art.
henry Koerner shown looking at his work at MoMA
Henry Koerner at the exhibition "National War Poster Competition.” November 25, 1942–January 3, 1943. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN207.6. Photograph by Phil Caputo.

After settling in New York, Henry Koerner, who was trained as a graphic artist in Vienna, worked at a studio designing book covers for detective stories. Koerner found initial success as a poster artist, winning several prizes. Someone Talked!, for example, reflects his knowledge of mystery novels and won an award from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Following this prize, the Graphics Division of the Office of War Information hired Henry Koerner, where he met painter Ben Shahn. A U.S. citizen, Koerner was later drafted and assigned to the Graphics Division of the Office of Strategic Services where he continued to make posters until 1945, when he was sent to Germany to document the Nuremberg trials.

3. Henry Koerner was a master of Magic Realism

This work by Henry Koerner depicts dozens of clowns, freaks, acrobats, and other performers, recalling the nearby influence of Coney Island.
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. The Showboat, 1948. Tempera on masonite, 481⁄2 x 26 inches. Private collection.
Multiple characters on a boat
Hieronymus Bosch, Dutch, c. 1450 –1516. Ship of Fools, c. 1490. 22.8 × 13.0 inches. Musée du Louvre.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA’s first director, initially described Magic Realism on the occasion of “American Realists and Magic Realists,” an exhibition organized at the museum in 1943 which included Charles Sheeler, Jared French and John Atherton, among others. Barr noted the “term sometimes applied to the work of painters who by means of an exact realistic technique try to make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike or fantastic visions[2].”

This work by Henry Koerner depicts men fishing and a woman emerging from the ocean
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. The Sea, 1949. Oil on masonite. 30 x 38 inches. Signed and dated lower left. Work retains original artist-selected Heydenryk frame. Museum collection.
Venus is seen naked in a shell as emerging from the water
Sandro Botticelli, Italian, c. 1445 – 1510. The Birth of Venus, c 1484. 5′ 8” x 9′ 2”. Uffizi, Florence.

While Henry Koerner’s work was not included in the show, he is considered a master of Magic Realism and his son Joseph noted in an email to Annabel Patterson that Koerner thought “he was the greatest painter of his time, not only technically but spiritually, as he [he claimed] had resolved the relation between Realism and Abstraction that had vexed painting since Cézanne.[3]” Koerner often cited Coney Island as well the Prater, an amusement park located near his childhood home where fantasy and performance reigned, as great sources of inspiration. These influences can be seen in The Showboat, which can also be linked to Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch. The Sea also evokes Coney Island’s influence while recalling Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Giotto’s staging of figures.

4. He created over twenty covers for TIME

Cover of TIME Magazine by Henry Koerner depicting John Kennedy
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Senator John Kennedy, 1957. TIME cover. December 2, 1957 © 1957 Time Inc.
Cover of TIME Magazine by Henry Koerner depicting Julie Harris.
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Julie Harris as Joan of Arc, 1957. TIME cover. November 28, 1955 © 1955 Time Inc.

Henry Koerner’s first cover for TIME featured Julie Harris as Joan of Arc and was published in 1955. Over the following years, Koerner depicted celebrities such as Maria Callas, Henry Moore, David Rockefeller and Barbara Streisand, his last cover for the magazine highlighting Senator Edward Brooke, in 1967. While the influence of Magic Realism is still very much present, the portraits executed for TIME show a different style for Koerner, who noted in 1951: “Instead of painting just people I made them real portraits. I tried very hard for likeness.[4]” Speaking about the process his father followed to create these covers, Joseph Leo Koerner noted in an email: “He always did the whole portrait from life: over many sittings, though without a preparatory sketch. He had to work fast. He painted an underpainting in oil paint thinned with turpentine, let that dry, and painted the rest in 2 or 3 more sittings. All this took several days. Some sitters were rude.[5]”

5. Henry Koerner was extremely successful during his life

Green and pink artwork showing a character standing under roses and looking at other characters playing sports
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. Rose Arbor, 1947. Oil on masonite. 28 x 35 inches. Private collection.

Shortly after learning about the tragic fate of his family, Henry Koerner had his first solo exhibition, which included My Parents, an homage to his deceased family. Held in Berlin in 1947, the show received immediate acclaim for his work. LIFE Magazine, in its edition from May 10, 1948, noted the exhibition “created a sensation in Germany,[6]” adding that “no new artist in years has been accorded the sudden, unanimous praise received by Koerner.[7]” Concurrently, Midtown Galleries began to represent him and hosted Henry Koerner’s first solo American exhibition in early 1948, in which The Showboat was included. With critical acclaim also came museum recognition: the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased Vanity Fair while MoMA purchased Rose Arbor, as noted in the press release for “American Paintings from the Museum Collection,” an exhibition held in 1948-49.

Press release from 1948 issued by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Press release for “American Paintings from the Museum Collection,” 1948. Archives of The Museum of Modern Art.
LIFE, May 10, 1948, Vol. 24, No. 19, Published by Time Inc, p. 77, © Time Inc.

Cover image: Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. The Showboat (detail), 1948. Tempera on masonite, 481⁄2 x 26 inches. Private collection.

1. Valerie Stanos, Realism and Surrealism: Social Visions in American Art, p. 38.
2. The Museum of Modern Art, American Realists and Magic Realists, New York, 1943, p. 5
3. Email quoted in Annabel Patterson, Real Portraits, Time Covers by Henry Koerner, 2015, p. 8
4. Quoted in Edith Balas, The Early Work of Henry Koerner (Pittsburgh: Frick Art & Historical Center, 2003), p. 64–65.
5. Email quoted in Annabel Patterson, Real Portraits, Time Covers by Henry Koerner, 2015, p. 8
6. LIFE, May 10, 1948, Vol. 24, No. 19, Published by Time Inc, p. 77, © Time Inc
7. ibid