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Q. I love a print I bought from an artist named Eleanor Coen. Did she go on to fame and fortune?

“Three Little Trees in the City” (1955), color lithograph by Eleanor Coen


A. You never know when you might come across a relatively unknown artist whose work absolutely rivets you. And it’s fun to think that your piece could someday be considered important by people other than you. Many highly regarded artists whose pieces now go for large sums, including Ruth Duckworth and Richard Hunt, once sold their work at Chicago art fairs.

As it happens, your artist, Eleanor Coen (born in 1916 in Normal, Illinois), did become an influential painter and printmaker. A WPA artist in the late 1930s, in 1941 she became the first woman to win a traveling fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; she used the money to study and teach in Mexico. When she returned to Chicago in 1942, she married Russian émigré artist Max Kahn. Known to family and friends as Max and Coney, they became the city’s powerhouse art couple—teaching, making art, winning prizes and renown, and raising a family (their daughter, Katie Kahn, teaches at Northern Illinois University). Max Kahn died in 2005 at the age of 103; Coen, who is no longer working, lives with her son, Noah, in Berkeley, California.

“Eleanor’s work was rooted in the WPA American Scene style,” says John Corbett of Corbett vs. Dempsey (1120 N. Ashland Ave., 773-278-1664; corbettvsdempsey.com), a gallery that represents both Coen and Kahn. “Her work morphed into something very personal, very delicate and layered, and at the same time very powerful. She was a great color lithographer.”

Coen’s lithographs often have a gridlike form. “A lot of her pieces are an investigation of how the city feels to a child,” says Jim Dempsey, the other half of Corbett
vs. Dempsey
. Children appear in the cityscapes without adults—“unadulterated,” as Dempsey says—heightening the sense of both danger and delight.

Today, Eleanor Coen’s prints go for anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000; her watercolors and oils start at $4,000. A permanent exhibit of works by Coen and Kahn is on view at the Community Bank of Oak Park (1001 Lake St., Oak Park, 708-660-1000).
 

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