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William Balfour Ker

William Balfour Ker Canadian-American artist

Canadian-American artist
William Balfour Ker
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Canadian-American artist
A.K.A. William Balfour-Ker, Balfour Ker, W. M. Balfour-Ker, William Ker, Will...
Was Illustrator Painter Artist
From United States of America
Type Arts Creativity
Gender male
Birth 25 July 1877, Dunnville, Canada
Death 20 October 1918, New York City, USA (aged 41 years)
Star sign LeoLeo
Spouse: Mary Ellen Sigsbee Fischer
The details


William Balfour Ker (1877–1918) also known simply as Balfour Ker, and sometimes written Balfour-Ker was a Canadian-American artist whose paintings appeared in popular magazines such as Life and The Delineator, and were widely reproduced in postcards and posters. A declared socialist, some of his most popular work depicts issues of class struggle and poverty. His work also appeared in advertisements for Liberty bonds and war savings stamps during World War I.

Early life

William Balfour Ker was born in Dunnville, Ontario, Canada on July 25, 1877. He had Scottish ancestry. His mother, Lily Florence Bell Ker, was first cousin of the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and his father, William Ker, was a Scottish businessman and banker. The family moved to the United States in 1880, where Ker was later naturalised. He had two brothers who survived him. Ker was raised in North Yakima, Washington, and at age 18 studied law at George Washington University and began attending evening classes in illustration. The Yakima Herald reported that by February 1896 he was a reporter for the Washington, D. C. Daily Post, and by December 1896 was studying art in Paris. He ended up as an artist in New York City.


Balfour Ker's cover for Life, Thanksgiving 1904
Christmas 1904 cover for Life

Ker painted covers for Life magazine, including Thanksgiving and Christmas issues. Some of his illustrations for Life were published as postcards by the Detroit Publishing Company.

Politically, he was a committed socialist, and this was often reflected in his art. His most famous and most-reproduced (in the form of prints)) image was From the Depths, originally published in John Ames Mitchell's book The Silent War (1906). Copies also circulated under the name The Hand of Fate. One of the former prints is held by the United States' Library of Congress. According to the LoC, it depicts:

a lavish social event in a large ballroom attended by the well-to-do; the party is disrupted when a fist erupts through the floor, beneath which are the struggling masses of the less fortunate who provide the foundation support on which the wealthy rest.

The People's History of Classics research project based at King's College London note that in the background of the image are:

Discobolos and Venus of Melos, the two most familiar of all ancient statues, representing the decadent life of luxury

The art historian Carolyn Haynes observes:

Ker clearly intended this painting to inflame class divisions between productive workers and the wealthy upper class, as represented by strong but exploited workers trapped beneath the floor and well-to-do dancers at a society ball... That such a work could be painted, published, and widely discussed suggests that class divisions in the Progressive Era were real and widespread.

During the First World War, Balfour Ker also designed posters advertising United States government war savings stamps for the United States Treasury.

Personal life

Ker was married twice. His first marriage was to Mary Ellen Sigsbee, a fellow socialist and a feminist, whose father, Charles D. Sigsbee, had been captain of the USS Maine during the Spanish-American War. The marriage was conducted against her father's wishes, after an 1898 elopement. They first lived in Greenwich Village, but after a period working in Paris, the marriage failed and they divorced in 1910. Following their divorce, Sigsbee married Anton Otto Fischer. All three were artists and former students of Howard Pyle. Ker and Sigsbee had a son, David (1906–1922), who was adopted by Fischer.

Ker's second wife was Josephine Reeder Phillips, an American model, whom he married in England in 1914. They lived there and in France, before returning to the United States. They had four children, some before he divorced Sigsbee. These included three sons and a daughter, Yosene Balfour Ker, who was a model featured in several paintings by the artist John Sloan, and whose own daughter was the actress Tuesday Weld (born Susan Ker Weld).

Ker died on October 20, 1918, in New York City, at the age of 41. Phillips died within a few years, leaving their four children, ranging in age from four to ten years, as orphans. On discovering that they were in the care of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Newark, New Jersey, Alexander Graham Bell wrote to the society, and to John Adams Kingsbury in April 1922, offering assistance.

Works illustrated

Books illustrated by Ker include:

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 22 Feb 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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