Irma Julia Köhn (later Irma René Koen) was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on Oct. 8, 1884. She graduated from Rock Island High School and, after a brief spell attending Augustana College, enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) in 1903. In 1916, she exhibited scenes of the Monterey Peninsula at the AIC. She studied art with C. F. Brown, W.L. Lathrop, H. B. Snell, and in Europe.
Koen, who never married, traveled very widely during her working life, studying and painting in numerous art colonies, including St. Ives, Cornwall, England (1914); Monterey/Carmel, California (1915); East Gloucester, Massachusetts (1917); New Hope, Pennsylvania (1928); Boothbay Harbor, Maine (1927, 1928); Taos, New Mexico (1929). She also visited Asia, including Nepal. Prior to 1923, she signed her paintings as “Irma Köhn.” Sometime after a trip to France and North Africa in 1923-24, she changed her professional name to “Irma René Koen”.
After the second world war, she spent the remainder of her life based in Mexico. Art historian and biographer Cynthia Wiedemann Empen writes that Koen traveled to Mexico in the early 1940s for two months, moved to San Miguel de Allende circa 1944, and resided briefly in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, Pátzcuaro and Mazatlán before establishing a permanent home and studio in Cuernavaca, in the central Mexican state of Morelos, near Mexico City.
Neill James, writing about Ajijic in 1945, describes how a recent visitor “Irma René Koen, an impressionist painter from Chicago, found a rich source of material in the local landscape”, so presumably Koen most likely visited Ajijic in late 1944 or early in 1945.
During her thirty years in Mexico, Koen traveled and painted throughout the country, with extensive trips also to Central America (Guatemala), Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Kashmir, Nepal, and Iran.
Her vivid oil paintings, watercolors and plein-air landscape scenes were widely exhibited during her lifetime, at galleries and museums in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Paris (1923) and Mexico.
Her first major exhibition in Mexico was in 1947 at the Circulo de Bellas Artes de México; this exhibit was later shown in Chicago. In 1956, her paintings were displayed in the Galeria de Arte Mexicano (Gallery of Mexican Art) in Mexico City. In 1968, a selection of Koen’s paintings of Mexican landscapes and markets was hung at the Galeria de Edith Quijano in Mexico City. The following year, an exhibit of her oil paintings was held in the Palacio de Cortés, the main museum in her adopted home of Cuernavaca.
- Website about Irma René Koen written and compiled by art historian and biographer Cynthia Wiedemann Empen