Sonntag the Elder, William Louis
Oil on linen
37 x 54 1/4 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
This summer landscape by the American artist William Sonntag was painted quite probably in upstate New York about 1855. Although the work itself is no doubt a faithful transcription of some particular site, the artist’s primary objective was certainly not merely to record an exact geographic location. For, like other painters of the 19th century American landscape school, Sonntag poetically idealized the undisturbed rural setting and sought to create an image of the all-embracing beauty of the natural environment with its infinite variety of shapes, colors, textures and moods, all interwoven into an harmonious unity of life. Here the clear reflections from the still, silvery surface of the water, the cows peacefully standing along the river’s edge, and the uncorrupted wilderness, mysteriously teeming with vital forces, yet strangely quiet, combine to evoke mood of reverence and tranquil solitude.
Compositionally, spatial distance is organized in three rather sharply-defined zones, with the foreground occupied by distinct but dark forms, the middle ground by violet-toned and somewhat less distinct forms, and the background by forms that fade in the glowing light of the far distant sky. At the same time, the thick luxuriant growth of summer foliage rendered in heavy dark green masses at the right is effectively balanced at the left by the winding river which carries the eye past rocky cliffs and toward the distant and barely visible hill. Of particular interest is Sonntag’s typical manner of applying tiny flicks of white and light-yellow pigment along edges of the green leaves and the brown tree barks so as to create an impression of reflected speckled light.
William L. Sonntag was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1822 but spent most of his youth and early adulthood in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he began his career as a painter. He was known primarily as a landscapist and, in 1862, was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design. Rather little is known of his life except that he was married, that he visited Europe, especially Italy, in 1853 and 1855, and that he settled in New York about 1856 where he maintained a studio until his death in 1900.