American Memory digital collection, Library of Congress, DN-0072902,
Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum. (detail images of harbor scene and Mexican watercolor, courtesy of private collection)
The modern painter Irma René Koen (neé Irma Julia Kohn) was born in Rock Island, IL (b. October 8, 1883-d. July 16, 1975). She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago with prominent landscape painter Charles Francis Browne (1859-1920) and with leading Danish-American portraitist John Christen Johansen (1876–1964). While residing in Rock Island or Chicago, Koen also spent summers painting in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maine, most notably with the New Hope Circle Impressionists including William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938) and the eminent teacher Henry Bayley Snell (1858-1943) at the Boothbay Harbor summer art colony in Maine. Koen painted here in Illinois, and briefly in California and New Mexico, as well as along the East Coast, and abroad in England (St. Ives, Cornwall, art colony), France, Africa, Asia, and Spain, among other locales. She established her painting studios in Rock Island, Chicago, East Gloucester, Rockport, Paris, and Cuernavaca. Irma’s talents and interests extended beyond painting over the course of her lifetime. In her youth, she danced in theatrical benefits and was an accomplished cellist. She served as an art juror and on various civic committees, fostering the local art community and the emerging modern art movement in the Midwest. A world traveler, Irma was also a writer and lecturer, speaking on her travels, trends in art and flower arranging. After moving to Mexico permanently in 1944, Irma continued painting and traveling and even created designs for Mexican textile embroidery. She exhibited her vivid plein-air paintings, watercolors, and gouache scenes for nearly 70 years, including galleries and museums in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, and in Paris and throughout Mexico. This website is devoted Koen’s remarkable life and art.
Quotes by Irma:
“It is true that if modern art has lost some of the graciousness of the older schools, it has gained vigor and independence….The modernist says: ‘I care not if my work does not resemble nature. I want to tell what I feel about things. I must express what I think and feel and not only what my eyes see.'”
—Irma’s lecture “Fashions in Art,” presented at the 17th biennial convention of the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs, Davenport (IA), reprinted in the Davenport Democrat and Leader, May 18, 1927
“This is an age for mentality. Make your picture a mental thing before you make it a material one. On those days when you feel it is a good day to paint a landscape, then make your studies, but not your finished picture. Make your mental picture, and decide how your sketches from nature can help you to express your thought.”
—tips to artists from her juror’s lecture, Fifth Annual Hoosier Art Salon exhibition, Marshall Field & Co. picture galleries, Chicago, January 1929, reprinted in The Indianapolis Star)
Irma René Koen exhibited and signed her paintings as “Irma Kohn” [prior to 1926] and as “Irma René Koen” [after 1926]. She also signed some works created in France and Africa as “Irma Roen” (sic) from 1923-24 which she exhibited in 1925 (Chicago & Dallas). Late works are sometimes signed “Irma René.”
Her parents were Louis Kohn and Regina “Rena” Mosenfelder Kohn (Rock Island, IL).
Irma died on July 16, 1975.
Irma René Koen
“Gloucester in Autumn”
Oil on canvas, circa 1930 (approx. 36 x 40 in.)
Donated in memory of her father Louis Kohn to
Rock Island Public Library collection (IL) in 1943
~ Cynthia Wiedemann Empen, PhD
Independent Art Historian (American art and 19th-century visual culture)
© Copyright Cynthia Wiedemann Empen, compiled research and essay/text content