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Robert Koehler (1850 - 1917)

Robert Koehler was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 28, 1850. Four years later, he and his family immigrated to Milwaukee.  By the 1870s, Koehler was working as a lithographer in New York City while studying art in night classes at the National Academy of Design.

In 1873, Koehler left New York for art school in Munich. He stayed there for two years, studying with noted German artists. Many of his teachers belonged to the Munich School. The group worked in the style of academic realism, an idealistic approach to painting contemporary or historical real life. In 1875, Koehler returned to New York and to his studies at the National Academy. Later, he studied at the Art Students League.

1879 again found Koehler in Munich. For the next six years, he taught in private classes, and later in his own art school, and involved himself in the art world of the city. In 1883, he organized the American section of the Munich International Exhibition, then did it again in 1888.

Koehler received bronze and silver medals at the Munich Academy and an honorable mention at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 for one of his most famous paintings, The Strike. The painting had already drawn both praise and criticism at the National Academy of Design’s exhibition in 1886, a year of an international wave of labor strikes.

Later, the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts (MSFA) bought the work and promised to put it on permanent exhibition in the Minneapolis Public Library. The nine-foot-long painting remained in the library’s attic for decades and was eventually acquired by Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum.

In 1893, Koehler accepted an offer to come to Minneapolis to teach in the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts (later renamed the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). The school had been founded in 1886 by the then three-year-old Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts.

At the turn of the century, Minneapolis galleries, art societies, and artists’ studios held exhibitions of local, national, and, increasingly, international artists. T. B. Walker’s public gallery was developing into the museum it would become in 1927: Walker Art Galleries (later renamed the Walker Art Center). Many of the works of fine European and Asian art then acquired by Minneapolis collectors would later find their way to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, founded in 1915. Minneapolis was poised to become the art center of the upper Midwest.

Soon after Koehler arrived in the city, he became the director of the MSFA. The school’s profile and curriculum grew under his directorship. The curriculum was classical, like most other art schools, but the strains of modernism coming out of Europe and New York were not completely ignored. Koehler was a vocal proponent of Impressionism and later of Cubism and Futurism. After ten years as director, he resigned but was still recognized as an essential part of the school, referred to by staff and students as “Papa Koehler.”

Koehler had a general enthusiasm for encouraging the Minnesota art world. In 1898, the Minnesota State Art Society was founded. Among its many goals was sending touring exhibitions around Minnesota to share fine art with those outside the Twin Cities.

Koehler was the society’s first president. He founded the Artists League, an association of local artists whose exhibitions illustrated the talent of the Twin Cities to the satisfaction of both the local and national press. Finally, in 1915, he played a pivotal role in the creation of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Koehler continued to paint and exhibit, and to organize artists and exhibitions, until his death. On April 23, 1917, he died of a heart attack.

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