From Illustration to the Easel: Sporting Artist Henry Koehler

Don’t miss the chance to Meet the Artist Henry Koehler on Saturday, April 11th. He will be in the exhibition galleries to chat about Sporting Accoutrements: The Still Lifes of Henry Koehler from noon to 1 pm. It is a Free Admission Day. If you have time, make a day of it; stay for a showing of the movie classic, International Velvet, in the Library’s Founders’ Room beginning at 1 p.m. The film is also free of charge.

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It was an honor to be invited to be on a first-name basis with Henry Koehler. He has been a noted sporting artist for over fifty years, and he may still be found at his easel. A great conversationalist, Henry said to me jokingly a while back, “Forgive me for repeating myself, but I will be eighty-eight years old in February.” I chuckled, but it struck me to the core.  His charm, intelligence, and quick wit are timeless. I hadn’t done the math. Of course he is now eighty-eight; he was born in 1927.

Henry is from a generation of talented artists who found a niche in illustration art before the rise to photography in many periodicals. He graduated from Yale in 1950, moved to New York, and quickly became a successful commercial artist regularly featured in such magazines as Sports Illustrated, Vogue, Town & Country, and The New Yorker.  Henry’s confident line drawings show his illustration background. Below is a sketch that he donated to the NSLM of sporting scholar Alexander Mackay-Smith, one of the institution’s founders. The charcoal is a preparatory study for the final version which appeared in the article, Rampart of Pedigree by Huston Horn (text only), in Sports Illustrated in February 11, 1963. (If you read the article, you will see that not much has changed in Middleburg!)

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Henry Koehler (American, b.1927), Alexander Mackay-Smith, charcoal on paper, 24 x 18 inches, NSLM Permanent Collection, Gift of the Artist, 2012, © Henry Koehler

Henry had an early love of sailing, and one of his college roommates introduced him to foxhunting. He took to it immediately and followed the Litchfield County Hounds, in Middlebury, CT, for seven years. “One of the advantages of being a painter, if luck goes right, you can paint what you like, what you love to do anyway,” he says about his two passions. His success brought the attention of Jacqueline Kennedy, who saw his sailing images in Sports Illustrated and commissioned him to produce a painting of President Kennedy sailing as a gift to her husband. Below is a link to the informative CBS News article and delightful interview between Henry and his stepson, CBS correspondent Anthony Mason, delving into the fascinating story surrounding the commissions by the Kennedy family in the mid-1960s.

CBSNews.com: JFK Painting Finds Its Way Back to the Artist Fifty Years After Brush with Camelot

Henry Koehler in his studio with his stepson CBS correspondent, Anthony Mason, with a painting Koehler created in 1963 of President and Mrs. Kennedy sailing the Victura which recently resurfaced after fifty years. (image © CBS News | source: http://cbsnews1.cbsistatic.com/hub/i/r/2013/03/01/5a336b7b-a645-11e2-a3f0-029118418759/thumbnail/620×350/09ea17d8c0842eab45e487d20c12c223/paintingjfk.jpg)

By the early 1960s, Henry recognized the negative impact photography was having on illustration art and turned his attention to easel painting. His enjoyment of hunting broadened to include observing and painting other equestrian pursuits. Since then, he has easily moved through international sporting circles sketching and painting many of the major race courses and tracks, polo events, and hunts in the United States, England, France, and Italy throughout his career. Henry has touched on not only equestrian pursuits, but most all traditional turf and field sports in his work, including fishing and shooting. To-date he has had over seventy gallery and museum exhibitions.

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Henry Koehler (American, b. 1927), Fox Hunter’s Accoutrements, 2001, oil on canvas on panel, 10 x 13 inches, Private Collection, © Henry Koehler

Although he has worked on commission, Henry is not known for formal portraiture.  Instead, he prefers to capture the atmosphere of a given scene, looking for intimate and often informal moments, from every perspective. His observations of horse racing, for example, might include clamorous starts; studies of jockeys milling about, weighing in, or adjusting a boot, often from innovative angles; the saddling paddock; a jockey’s valet tending to tack; engaged spectators; and a grouping of discarded jockeys’ helmets.

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Henry Koehler (American, b.1927), Jockeys Between Races, Newmarket, 2009, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches, NSLM Permanent Collection, Gift of the artist, 2012, © Henry Koehler

In his varied approach to his compositions, Henry includes still lifes. These more contemplative works sometimes take a back seat to his more dynamic compositions. The exhibition, Sporting Accoutrements: The Still Lifes of Henry Koehler, was an opportunity to isolate Henry’s paintings of fox and stag hunting, racing, polo, fishing, and shooting paraphernalia, giving the visitor a quiet, introspective experience. Working with Advisor and NSLM Board Member Lorian Peralta-Ramos, each painting was selected to highlight the artist’s deep knowledge and respect for the objects and the nature of their use.

If you would like to learn more about Henry Koehler and his exhibition, come out to meet him in person on April 11th and have a chat. I promise, it will be worth your time. Exhibition catalogues are also available at the front desk and at the NSLM’s Amazon Marketplace.

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Cover of exhibition catalogue: Henry Koehler (American, b.1927), Sporting Gear Hanging, 2002 (detail), oil on canvas, 26 ¾ x 19 ½ inches, Private Collection, © Henry Koehler
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