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 William Sommer  (1867 - 1949)

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Lived/Active: Ohio/Michigan      Known for: modernist-leaning landscape, still life, lithographs

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
William Sommer is seen as a key person in bringing European modernism to Northeast Ohio. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, and in his youth apprenticed for seven years to a lithographer.

He briefly studied at an art academy in Germany and then worked as a lithographer in New York before moving to Cleveland, where he was awarded a major contract with the Otis Lithography Company. There he became friends with sculptor and painter William Zorach, and the two, determined to be fine artists, began painting together on weekends. They also became intrigued by avant-garde movements, especially after Zorach's trip to Paris in 1910.

In 1911, Sommer co-founded a group in Cleveland called the Kokoon Club, a mixed group of commercial artists and radical modernists who sought the freedom to pursue their independent tendencies. They converted a tailor's shop into a studio and held exhibitions and lectures and organized an annual masked ball that became the focus of Cleveland's bohemian life.

In 1913, he and his colleagues began painting at Brandywine, about 30 miles south of Cleveland and made a school house into a studio. They devoted increasing time to watercolor painting because they could work spontaneously and it would dry quickly. Rejecting the conventional ideas of beauty, they strove for the expression of emotion and spontaneity and fantasy. One of Sommer's most successful students was Charles Burchfield.

As he was perfecting his mature style, he had financial difficulties because he made his living from commercial lithography, which was becoming obsolete, and the Depression was hitting the nation causing him to lose his job. He became a WPA artist, doing murals in northeastern Ohio.

After his death at age 82, he was largely forgotten until 1980 when Hilton Kramer, a "New York Times" critic, praised his work. In May to July, 1994, the Ohio Arts Council held a retrospective of his work at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus. His work is found in many public collections including the National Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, S-Z):
The son of German immigrants, William Sommer was born in Detroit on January 18, 1867. He was largely self-taught, but received instruction early on from artist and commercial lithographer Julius Melchers. In 1881 Melchers helped Sommer obtain an apprenticeship with the Detroit Calvert Lithograph Company. After his seven-year apprenticeship concluded, Sommer established a solid reputation as a lithographer, and job offers took him to Boston, New York, and England.

In 1890 Sommer traveled to Europe with, and at the expense of, fellow lithographer Fred Hager. He completed a year of additional training in Munich, where he worked with Professors Johann Herterich, Ludwig Schmid, and Adolph Menzel, and he made brief excursions to the Alps, Italy and Holland. When he returned to the United States, Sommer supported himself as a commercial lithographer in New York, while pursuing his own art in paints and pastels. In keeping with the Munich aesthetic, he painted portraits in predominantly earthen tones with broad strokes of the brush.

In 1907 Sommer accepted a position with the Otis Lithograph Company of Cleveland, Ohio. His fellow lithographers at Otis included William Zorach and Abel Warshawsky, both of whom soon left to study art in Paris. In 1911 Sommer co-founded the Kokoon Arts Club to promote modern art in Cleveland. Zorach and Warshawsky joined the group upon returning from Paris. Warshawsky taught Sommer the fundamentals of Impressionism, the style that Sommer practiced from 1910 to 1912. Zorach introduced Sommer to Post-Impressionism—an influence that registered in the large, flat areas of bright color and simplified forms in Sommer’s works of 1913 and 1914. A visit to the 1913 Armory Show in New York sparked an interest in works by Henri Matisse and the Fauves, and Sommer’s canvases began displaying similarly vivid colors and energetic brushwork.

In 1914 Sommer relocated to Brandywine, midway between Cleveland and Akron. He converted an abandoned schoolhouse into a studio, producing festive watercolors of sensuous nudes that show Matisse’s influence. He kept up with the vanguard artists and thinkers through his job at Otis. Inspired by Cézanne and German Expressionism, Sommer began combining angular and curving forms in his compositions in about 1917. Increasingly, through the mid-1920s, he painted expressive, geometric oils with dense forms in earth tones, focusing on themes of children, livestock, landscapes, and still lifes. Throughout his career, Sommer assimilated fractured masses by adopting flat, patterned arrangements inspired by Matisse’s lines and colors.

By the late 1920s, Sommer’s classic period, he had developed his own unique style. Using watercolor, which had become his primary medium, he handled Midwestern subject matter according to the aesthetic principles of European modernism. In 1924 the Cleveland Museum of Art awarded Sommer First Prize for drawing; thereafter, he garnered awards from that institution and exhibited yearly in their May shows. From his earliest Munich works to the portraits and genre subjects of the 1940s, Sommer consistently displayed mastery of line.

Sommer was hard hit by the Depression and gladly accepted work on several large-scale murals for federal art projects. He continued to paint until his death on June 20, 1949. Art critic Hilton Kramer noted in the New York Times that “his work seems to have been born . . . of a remarkable inner serenity and lyric grace. Whatever the disorder or disappointments of his life, his art is beautifully controlled.” The Cleveland Museum of Art celebrated Sommer’s career with a memorial exhibition in 1950, and the Akron Art Institute hosted a retrospective show in 1970.

Sommer’s work is represented in leading public collections, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Akron Art Institute; and Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio.

© Copyright 2007 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, R-Z):

William Sommer (1867-1949)

The son of German immigrants, William Sommer was born in Detroit on January 18, 1867.  He was largely self-taught, but early-on received instruction from artist and commercial lithographer Julius Melchers.  In 1881 Melchers was instrumental in obtaining for Sommer an apprenticeship with the Detroit Calvert Lithograph Company.  Following his seven years' apprenticeship, Sommer created a solid reputation as a lithographer, and job offers took him to Boston, New York, and England.

In 1890 Sommer traveled to Europe with, and at the expense of, fellow lithographer Fred Hager.  He pursued a year of additional training in Munich, where he worked with Professors Johann Herterich, Ludwig Schmid, and Adolph Menzel, and he made brief excursions to the Alps, Italy and Holland. 

Upon his return to the United States, Sommer took up residence in New York, returning to commercial lithography, while pursuing his own art in paints and pastels.  In keeping with the Munich aesthetic, he painted portraits in predominantly earthen tones with broad strokes of the brush. 

In 1907 Sommer accepted a position with the Otis Lithograph Company of Cleveland, Ohio.  His fellow lithographers at Otis included William Zorach and Abel Warshawsky, both of whom left to study in Paris.  In 1911 Sommer co-founded the Kokoon Arts Club to promote modern art in Cleveland.  Zorach and Warshawsky joined the group after returning from Paris.  Warshawsky taught Sommer the fundamentals of Impressionism, the style that  Sommer practiced from 1910 to 1912.  Zorach inspired Sommer in Post-Impressionism, and this influence was registered in his large, flat areas of bright color and simplified forms in his works of 1913-1914.  A visit to the 1913 Armory Show in New York aroused Sommer’s interest in the work of Henri Matisse and the Fauves, and his canvases began to reflect their vivid colorism and energetic brushstrokes.

In 1914 Sommer relocated to Brandywine, mid-way between Cleveland and Akron.  He converted an abandoned schoolhouse into a studio, producing festive watercolors of sensuous nudes that show Matisse’s influence.  He kept up with the vanguard artists and thinkers through his job at Otis.  Inspired by Cézanne and German Expressionism, in about 1917 Sommer began to combine angular and curving forms in his compositions.  Increasingly, through the mid-1920s he painted expressive, geometric oils in dense form and earth tones, focusing on the familiar themes of children, livestock, landscapes, and still lifes.  Throughout his career, Sommer assimilated broken masses with the flat, patterned arrangement of Matisse's lines and colors.  He developed his own unique style by the late 1920s, his classic period.  Through watercolor, which had become his primary medium, he incorporated Midwestern subject matter with European Modernism.  In 1924 the Cleveland Museum of Art awarded Sommer First Prize for drawing; thereafter, he garnered awards from that institution and exhibited yearly in their May shows.  From his earliest Munich works to the portraits and genre subjects of the 1940s, Sommer remained master of the line.

Sommer was hard hit by the Depression and gladly accepted work on several large-scale murals for federal art projects.  He continued to paint until his death on June 20, 1949.  Art critic Hilton Kramer noted in the New York Times that ". . . his work seems to have been born. . . of a remarkable inner serenity and lyric grace.  Whatever the disorder or disappointments of his life, his art is beautifully controlled."  The Cleveland Museum of Art gave Sommer a memorial exhibition in 1950, and the Akron Art Institute hosted a retrospective show in 1970.

Sommer's work is represented in leading public collections, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Akron Art Institute; and Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio.


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