Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, November 28, 1923.
Died in Pine River, Minnesota, December 23, 2009.
Don Koestner was known by painters as the poet laureate of Minnesota impressionism. His life and work inspired and influenced two generations of mid-western landscape painters. He was the second child of working class parents. His sister was four years older than he. The family lived in suburban West Saint Paul until he was 10. They then moved to Minneapolis, where his father worked at the Minneapolis Moline implement company. Recalled Koestner, “My parents loved me and I had a tranquil childhood, but in my adolescent years I lost meaningful communication with them.” Those years also marked his acute awareness of the visible world, noting such things as the play of light and shadow on trees, the fact that cumulus clouds have flat bottoms and other aspects of nature about which many of us are unaware.
At the age of 14 or 15, spurred by the “How to” books by Watson and Guptill, the young Koestner set out on his bicycle to do pencil drawings of trees and farm and river landscapes south of Minneapolis. Said Koestner, “During those years I also spent part of my summer vacations on my uncle’s farm. I loved the place and, though I was too timid to do sketching there, I did do some pastels and watercolors of the farm from memory when I returned home. I think that my life-long feeling for the beauty of the Midwest farmlands stems from those days.”
During his last two years of high school, Koestner’s art teacher gave him scholarships to attend Saturday classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. “Those classes were my first introduction to an art school and to works in the adjacent Minneapolis Institute of Art. I enjoyed those classes and benefited from the opportunity to do some drawing from a clothed model. However, I recall arguing with my instructor about the merit of modern art works, reproductions of which she showed the class. My sole interest then was to record the beauty of nature. Now, more than 50 years, later, my motivation remains the same.”
Koestner graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1941. That summer he received a partial scholarship for a six-week landscape class at the Minneapolis School of Art. ‘It was a three-hour morning class,” he recalled. “We worked on location every day on six 16 x 20 inch paintings. It was my first experience painting in oil and I pursued it on my own when the class ended.”
Koestner’s art career was interrupted by World War II. Nevertheless, in the bowels of a troop ship headed for North Africa, he decided that he would enter art school if he survived the war. Of his army experience, he said, “It was basically a good thing for me and I had some interesting travels. I rode French box cars from Casablanca to Oran through the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, left Oran for Bombay on a British troop ship and, after two leisurely weeks in Bombay, rode a train to Calcutta. From there I traveled on train and river boat to a port in Northern India. I was then flown over the Himalayas to southwest China. I was always timid about drawing in public, so I did little in the army. However, I bought a sketchbook in Bombay and did a few drawings from memory in my bunk at night. I became a draftsman for the company in which I finally settled.”
The establishment of the G.I. Bill facilitated Koestner’s resolution to study art. In September, 1946, he enrolled at the Minneapolis School of Art. His four years there were enriching, and he made some life-long friends among fellow students, one of whom was Richard Lack who, with a few other students, shared his interest in traditional art. However, the respect that he had for his instructors diminished as he became aware of the deficiencies in their work and realized that he wasn’t receiving much useful information.
Wanting more concrete information on painting techniques, Koestner became interested in The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters by Jacques Maroger, a book that he had found in the library of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He began making Maroger’s medium, by boiling raw linseed oil with a lead dryer combined with mastic varnish. “I desired a faster drying paint than was commercially available. Maroger’s medium accelerated drying, and he recommended hand grinding pigment in his drying oil to accelerate it further.” Koestner began to do so in 1949 and continued to grind his paint throughout his career. He eventually switched to using cold pressed linseed oil as a grinding vehicle, but continued to use Maroger’s formula as a painting medium.
Koestner began to supplement his knowledge by studying museum collections. “I went to Chicago on several occasions, and in the summer of 1948 took a two-month tour of the south and east with a friend in his Model A Ford. In addition to doing pen and wash sketches nearly every day, we visited museums in Saint Louis, New Orleans, Florida, Washington, Philadelphia and New York. The following summer I visited Chicago twice and on one of those trips included the museums in Toledo and Detroit as well. Koestner graduated from art school in 1950 with a $400 scholarship to travel and study and he again made an extended trip east. He spent a week, respectively, in Boston, New York and Washington, with stops to see museums in other cities along the way. He felt that those early trips contributed greatly to his knowledge and appreciation of painting.
Wanting to paint full time, and influenced by Thoreau’s Walden, Koestner purchased four and one-half acres of land on a bank of the Mississippi River near the town of Hastings, Minnesota, with proceeds from a mural commission for a Minneapolis church. There he built a 14-by-22-foot cabin in the summer of 1951 and began to paint landscapes, supporting himself by driving a cab part time. In 1954 his study continued with a bicycle tour through Europe with his friend from the Model A trip. They sketched as they biked trough France, part of Italy, Austria and Germany. They sold their bikes and hitchhiked through Belgium and Holland, then ferried across the channel for a week in London before leaving Liverpool for home.
His painting career was given further impetus when Richard Lack returned from his studies with R. H. Ives Gammell in 1957 and shared with him the knowledge he had gained in Boston. At Lack’s suggestion, Koestner began doing still lifes. His small body of still lifes are tours-de-force of impressionist art.
In 1959, Koestner began applying the broken color methods of the Impressionists whose work inspired him, particularly Monet. Following the example set by Thoreau, Koestner and his family lived a rustic and semi-reclusive life. He devoted most of his time to painting the beauty of mid-western America’s landscape and the ever-changing atmosphere along the North Shore. After his marriage in 1960, his wife and eventually his two children posed for occasional figure paintings.
From 1970 to 1975 Koestner taught part time still life and portrait classes at the Minnesota Museum Art School in Saint Paul. He found the school haphazardly run and taught his classes with no interference or oversight. The classes grew in size and popularity until the end of 1975 when he and the other artists teaching representational art were fired after the director found out what they were teaching. Koestner continued teaching similar classes at the newly-relocated Atelier Lack from 1976 through 1985.
Koestner and his wife honeymooned along the North Shore of Lake Superior and vacationed there during ensuing years. In 1968 he received a commission to paint a diorama behind an exhibit in the Goodhue County Historical Society Museum in Red Wing Minnesota. With the money he received, the Koestners bought one and one-half acres along the shore on a 30 foot cliff overlooking the lake just north of the town of Silver Bay. They built a small cabin on the property and spent summers and some school vacation time there until 1985. They spent the rest of the year in their Hastings home.
Said Koestner, “During those years I became increasingly devoted to landscape. In addition to continuing outdoor painting, I began doing some larger canvases in the studio working from outdoor oil sketches, or pencil drawings and a memory color sketch. When possible, I do both studio and outdoor work on the large picture. I also discovered I could paint outdoors on winter pictures by mixing a few drops of kerosene with the paint on my palette. Because of these factors I abandoned still life painting did fewer figure pieces and devoted all my time to my initial interest: landscape painting.”
Koestner painted the lake and surrounding countryside with enthusiasm. His fine eye for seeing outdoor color got even better. There was a large rock arch on his property and he painted it in all types of weather. Crashing waves gradually eroded the rock and the arch eventually fell. His paintings form a visual record of the arch throughout those years. A small island was also offshore in front of his rocky beach and he often painted it as well.
In the fall of 1985, their children grown, the Koestners decided to sell their Mississippi River property and, during the summer of 1986, remodeled their Lake Superior cabin into a year-round home and studio. In November, at the age of 62, Koestner suffered a heart attack and had bypass surgery. After recovering, he helped with the additions to the cabin and continued to paint with undiminished vigor.
Koestner was an avid environmentalist. He fought to stop the pollution of Lake Superior. He also had a liking for the farm and river landscapes of the Mississippi River valley. When the fall color faded in the north, he and his wife took trips to the south for two or three weeks to sketch. He turned the small color studies into larger paintings in his studio during the winter. He also did a few winter landscapes as well and did numerous paintings from the windows of his home.
For many years Koestner traveled in the early fall to the Smoky Mountains to sketch and paint. He has developed his own style, but a few artists have had a definite influence on his work. Holbein was an early influence. He admired and studied the Barbizon painters, the Hudson River artists, George Inness, Monet and the American impressionists. He admired Thomas Moran and Turner.
Throughout his life Koestner expressed some bitterness that the Modernist establishment excluded him and his colleagues from museum shows, galleries and the art press. Nevertheless, in 1996 he wrote, “I have had a good life, work that I love, and the time and freedom to do it. Adopting Thoreau as an early mentor, I have tried to live a simple life. For most of our years together, Fern and I have done most of the things we wanted to do. I would not want the notoriety that success brings in our media-influenced world. I agree with a statement of Ken Kesey’s: ‘There are cross-hairs in the spotlight.’ I work best alone and prize a degree of anonymity and isolation. Although my work is not widely known, there have always been enough people buying paintings to keep us financially afloat. That’s enough to satisfy me.
“We live in a time of social and cultural upheaval, the outcome of which no one can foresee. What the role of the visual arts will be in the 21st century is equally unfathomable, but there are signs that an interest in traditional art is growing. I have long felt that, in time, the painting of our century will be stacked up against that done in the past, and only work that has relevance to the human experience and compares favorably in beauty and craftsmanship will last.”
Don Koestner created a body of work that artistically and sensitively depicts the fleeting effects of nature. The subtle fidelity and poetry of his work was unique in the landscape art of the second half of the 20th century. Koestner won many awards for his work and it may be seen in many public collections such as the Minnesota State Historical Society, the Goodhue County Historical Society and the Brown County Court House. He authored several articles on art including “The Plein-Air Experience,” in the book Realism in Revolution: the Art of the Boston School. Koestner was an emeritus member of The American Society of Classical Realism Guild of Artists.
For more about Don Koestner see A Way of Living: The simple life and extraordinary craft of landscape painter Don Koestner
Don Koestner: American Impressionist
Beauty: A Rebirth of Relevance, Newington-Cropsey Foundation Gallery of Art, 1996, exhibition catalog.
View Don Koestner’s art