William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900)

William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900)

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, William Louis Sonntag was drawn to the untamed beauty of the American landscape and pursued his interest in the arts despite his father’s objections. He was primarily self-taught, although it is thought he may have been a student of Godfrey Frankenstein at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts during the early 1840s. He spent a great deal of time sketching throughout the wilds of nearby Kentucky and, in 1846, sent his first painting to the American Art Union for exhibit. A year later, Sonntag was visited by the Reverend Elias Lyman Magoon of Cincinnati, who commissioned him to create a series of four paintings depicting the progress of civilization, based on a William Cullen Bryant poem. This venture established Sonntag’s reputation and resulted in several more commissions.

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Sonntag exhibited his work locally and one of these shows drew the attention of the Director of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1851. Impressed with Sonntag’s talent, he commissioned the artist to paint the impressive scenery along the B&O rail line in the Alleghenies. The same exhibition resulted in Sonntag’s introduction to Mary Ann Cowdell, and after three weeks’ courtship the two were married and turned the railroad sketching tour in the summer of 1852 into an extended honeymoon.

In 1853, Sonntag first showed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ annual exhibition and traveled abroad to Europe, spending several months in Italy and also visiting London and Paris. He returned to the States and worked on several commissions before leaving again for Europe in 1855 and remained in Florence, Italy, for a year. When he returned in 1857, Sonntag settled in New York, while maintaining his Cincinnati connections, and continued sending work to the Pennsylvania Academy and to the National Academy of Design, where he began exhibiting in 1855. He was elected an Associate member of the Academy in 1860 and became an Academician one year later, fully establishing himself in New York art circles.

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