This work by Henry Koerner depicts dozens of clowns, freaks, acrobats, and other performers, recalling the nearby influence of Coney Island.

"The Showboat": A Masterpiece of Magic Realism

Discover why and meet its characters

By Valerie G. Stanos, with contribution by Dr. Joseph Koerner

Henry Koerner’s works from the 1940s represent some of the greatest examples of Magic Realism and remain his most sought-after. Magic Realism was first defined by a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., described it as “a term sometimes applied to the work of painters who by means of an exact realistic technique try to make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike or fantastic visions” (The Museum of Modern Art, American Realists and Magic Realists, New York, 1943, p. 5). Koerner’s paintings from the late 1940s demonstrate the defining characteristics of the style, such as the sharply focused delineation of forms, a painstakingly minute rendering of detail, flattened perspective, an absence of shadows, and a strong, precise, severe manner of execution.

Koerner fled Vienna in 1938 after Hitler annexed Austria, leaving his family behind. When he returned to visit in 1946 after serving in the United States Army, he discovered that his entire family had been killed during the Holocaust. As a survivor, he felt intense pain and guilt, but also appreciated the fact that he was spared. Despite the grief associated with Vienna, Koerner returned there every year for the last thirty years of his life. He often felt out of place wherever he was— he seemed a European in America and was considered an American when in Europe. Contemporary observers often sensed this dual identity in his work.

Before moving to the United States, Koerner studied at the Graphic Academy of Applied Art in Vienna. He considered it an advantage that he did not attend a traditional art school. He admired contemporary Viennese painters and studied the Old Masters, especially Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. In The Showboat, Koerner’s subject matter is a direct reference to Bosch’s Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500, oil on wood, 223⁄4 x 13 inches, Musée du Louvre, Paris), a painting he knew well.

In the United States, Koerner first worked as a graphic artist at a New York studio designing book covers for detective and mystery stories. Koerner met Ben Shahn, who became his mentor when he joined the Office of War Information in 1943. Koerner admired Shahn’s highly stylized figures and distorted perspectives, techniques that he would develop in his own work.

The Showboat is a masterpiece of Magic Realism. Painted by Koerner in 1948 in Brooklyn, it depicts dozens of clowns, freaks, acrobats and other performers, recalling the nearby influence of Coney Island. The work, purchased when it was first exhibited at Midtown Galleries in 1948, remained in a private collection until now.

This work by Henry Koerner depicts dozens of clowns, freaks, acrobats, and other performers, recalling the nearby influence of Coney Island.
Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. The Showboat, 1948. Tempera on masonite, 48 1⁄2 x 26 inches. Private collection.

Cover image: Henry Koerner, American, 1915–1991. The Showboat (detail), 1948. Tempera on masonite, 481⁄2 x 26 inches