William Louis Sonntag
One principle I’ve learned over many years is that collectors’ and dealers’ tastes are far ahead of museum and academic attention . . . at least for American art. This is certainly true for second-generation Hudson River School artist William Louis Sonntag. I was exposed to Sonntag’s work very early in my collecting experience and immediately responded to his very distinctive and recognizable style. My father acquired the first example in the collection, Distant Waterfall, from Ken Lux in 1967, for the tidy sum of $375. At that moment, I believe short of Fielding’s, there was nothing written on the artist. A year later, I acquired a second Sonntag, West Virginia Mountains, from Jack Bartfield. Both pictures share the same rugged wilderness feel and small size. I think the first effort at a show of the artist’s work occurred at Vose Gallery in 1970 and was accompanied by a very small ten-page black-andwhite brochure—a rather modest reintroduction by today’s standards. The biographical information highlighted his early years: 1840s and 1850s in Cincinnati, during which time he painted throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, and the Ohio River Valley. An early exhibition of his work while still living in Cincinnati yielded two acquaintances of significance: the director of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, who commissioned the young artist to travel and paint the scenery as the rail line crossed the Alleghenies; and a young lady from Ohio named Mary Ann Cowdell who became his wife—three weeks later—and joined him on the adventure. The third and final example of Sonntag’s work, entitled Cabin in the Wilderness, came in 1998 and was acquired from Howard Godel in New York. Of course, in the nearly three decades since the first purchase, the Hudson River School has become almost a household word—even if some think it’s a private school in upstate New York—and the price paid to my friend Howard was some twenty times higher than the first example.