Sylvester Rosa Koehler was born on February 11, 1837, in Leipzig, Germany, to an artistically inclined family of musicians. In 1849, Koehler, still a youth, immigrated with his family to the United States. Max Lehrs, Koehler’s friend and noted German print curator and scholar, wrote, in Koehler’s 1901 obituary that Koehler grew up in humble circumstances, taking any available job as a young man while studying from books in his spare time. Koehler’s self-education would form the basis of a career dedicated to the development of print culture in the United States. His efforts would lay the foundation of the extraordinary collection of works on paper held by the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, today.
The census records 13-year-old Sylvester and his family as living in New York City’s Ward 8, in what is now Soho. Sylvester is the younger of two sons to Robert (age 48) and Eliza (age 35). Robert Sr.’s occupation is listed as “artist”; 16-year-old Robert Jr. is already working as a gilder. Sylvester, at 13, is listed as being in school.
By the early 1860s, Koehler is living in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he is active in local politics, helps organize a German cultural club, and is a member of the volunteer fire brigade. He marries Amalie Jaeger and, by 1865, the couple have three children: Walter, Hedwig, and Hans.
Koehler becomes a technical manager at Louis Prang and Company, a Boston-based chromolithograph publisher specializing in chromolithographs, and remains with the firm for ten years. Prang, a fellow German emigrant, was one of the leading publishers of color lithographs, producing everything from advertisements and greeting cards to reproductions of paintings.
Louis Prang and Company publish Koehler’s translation of Wilhelm von Bezold’s Theory of Color in Its Relation to Art and Art-Industry, evidence of Koehler’s lifelong interest in color theory and color printing.
Koehler is hired by Boston-based publisher Estes and Lauriat to create The American Art Review: A Journal Devoted to the Practice, Theory, History, and Archaeology of Art. With coeditors Charles C. Perkins (one of the founders of the MFA) and William C. Prime, the Review commissions original etchings from American artists to be distributed with the publication. The Review ran only until 1881, but it played an important role in the popularization and professionalization of the arts and print culture in the late 19th century.
Koehler publishes A Treatise on Etching, his translation of Maxime Lalanne’s 1866 Traité de la gravure à l’eau-forte.
Koehler is invited to help create a new department dedicated to the collection and permanent exhibition of the graphic arts at the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, DC. George Brown Goode, assistant director of the museum, asks Koehler to curate an exhibition of lithographic specimens donated by Louis Prang and Company and to consult on a classification scheme for the graphic arts.
Koehler publishes two portfolios, Original Etchings by American Artists (1883) and Twenty Original American Etchings (1884), each containing newly commissioned etchings by American artists with text by Koehler. He also publishes two volumes of The United States Art Directory and Yearbook: A Guide for Artists, Art Students, Travellers, etc. (1882–1884), an encyclopedic listing of artists, collections, dealers, and institutions throughout the United States.
Koehler publishes Etching: An Outline of Its Technical Processes and Its History, with Some Remarks on Collections and Collecting. Koehler is appointed temporary curator of Harvard University’s Gray Collection of Engravings, then on long-term loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Gray Collection is one of the leading early collections of prints in the United States.
Koehler becomes the first curator of the Section of Graphic Arts at the United States National Museum.
The MFA organizes its own print department, with a collection separate from the Gray Collection. Koehler is named curator of this new department. It is the MFA’s first separate curatorial department.
Koehler publishes the catalogue Exhibition of the Etched Work of Rembrandt, and of Artists of His Circle […] Principally from the Collection of Mr. Henry F. Sewall of New York, to accompany an exhibition of nearly 500 prints at the MFA. This is the first major Rembrandt exhibition in the United States, and it would not have been possible without Sewall’s comprehensive collection.
Koehler organizes the first American exhibition devoted exclusively to prints by women, titled “Women Etchers of America,” also at the MFA.
Koehler resigns from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, during a dispute with the Museum’s president about adequate staff support for the department. The dispute is quickly settled, and Koehler resumes his employment. Koehler’s daughter and collaborator Hedwig is appointed as an assistant to the Print department.
Koehler organizes the “Exhibition Illustrating the Technical Methods of the Reproductive Arts from the XV. Century to the Present Time: With Special Reference to the Photo-Mechanical Processes” (January 8 to March 6) at the MFA along with writing the corresponding exhibition catalogue. During the exhibition’s run, Koehler gives a series of three lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (January 14 and 28, and February 28) on the photo-mechanical processes.
Koehler organizes an exhibition of works by Albrecht Dürer for the Grolier Club in New York. The exhibition and catalogue are the first serious scholarship on Dürer presented in the United States. After years of advocacy by Koehler, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acquires Henry F. Sewall’s collection, bringing the MFA its first major collection of old master prints. The Museum purchases the collection with funds from the bequest of Harvey D. Parker, and the collection is renamed in Parker’s honor.
Koehler gives his personal collection of more than 6,000 prints and books to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The MFA is host to an exhibition of bookplates, sponsored by Boston’s Club of Odd Volumes, a society of book collectors. Koehler initiates the project, but his deteriorating health means he cannot complete the project, which is finished by his daughter, Hedwig.
Koehler takes a yearlong medical leave from the MFA, during which he travels to Europe to study major print collections.
Koehler suffers a heart attack and dies on September 15, near his summer house in Littleton, New Hampshire.