Irma Rene Koen, a forgotten artist from Rock Island and a woman who painted literally hundreds of works in her 90-year lifetime, finally is being remembered.
After almost 2½ years of detective work, Rock Island art historian Cynthia Wiedemann Empen has unearthed much of Koen's remarkable life (1884-1975) and will share it in a free talk on Tuesday.
The 7:15 p.m. presentation will be at Hauberg Civic Center, 1300 24th St., Rock Island.
Empen began tracking Koen in early 2011 when she was looking for a new person to research for a presentation later that year in Peoria. The occasion was the Illinois Women Artist Project symposium titled "Uncovering the Stories of Midwestern Women Artists, 1840-1940."
"I literally Googled 'Rock Island' and 'women artist' and came up with her name," said Empen, who has a doctorate in modern art history from Indiana University.
Koen was a trained landscape painter who studied with some of the era's most influential teachers and was described as "well-known" and "famous" in own time, but Empen had not heard of her.
She soon discovered that Koen grew up in a house Empen could see from her own home in Rock Island's historic Broadway District. This added a personal connection to her professional interest.
Koen graduated from Rock Island High School and, after a brief time at Augustana College, enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1903. Although it was not unheard of for women to enroll at the institute at the time, it certainly was not common, Empen said.
Koen traveled extensively, painting all the while, and apparently sold enough of her work that — coupled with whatever help she received from her parents — it was sufficient to finance her lifestyle. She never married.
Destinations included artist colonies in England, Monterey, Calif., several places on the East Coast and in Taos, N.M.
She also traveled to Paris, North Africa, Nepal and Asia.
Koen exhibited her vivid oil paintings, watercolors and plein-air landscape scenes at galleries and museums in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and also in Paris and Mexico.
A few Quad-City scenes made their way into her voluminous body of work, including a view of the Mississippi River at the Rock Island-Arsenal viaduct, but they are mostly of other places.
She lived the last 30 years of her life in Cuernavaca, Mexico, known as a vacation destination for movie stars and artists. At one point in the 1960s, she was briefly arrested and jailed in Iran for photographing and sketching Iranian women, Empen said.
Her work still is sold occasionally; three of her pieces have come up for auction so far this year, Empen added.
An oil painting titled "All on a Summer's Day" is owned by the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, and an untitled harbor scene hangs in the main branch of the Rock Island Public Library.
Because Empen has commitments in Rock Island, including her husband and two young sons, she was not able to travel much for her research. Most of it has been done via the Internet, telephone calls — she tracked down Koen's surviving great-niece in California — and reading Quad-City area newspapers. Whenever Koen came back to the area for a visit or exhibition, a mention was made in the newspaper's society pages.
Eempen has compiled her research in a blog (irmarenekoen.wordpress.com), but she hopes to do more work and welcomes any additional information from people in the Quad-Cities.
In digging up information about the individual artist, Empen said she also discovered something about artists in general — that the "regional history of early professional artists in the Quad-Cities, especially women, has been largely neglected and many notable artists forgotten over the years."
Empen's talk is hosted by the Rock Island Preservation Society.