DescriptionWILLIAM SOMMER (American, 1867-1949)
Fauve Landscape and The Mooring (double-sided work), 1912
Oil on canvas
26 x 10 inches (66.0 x 25.4 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: William Sommer / 1912
PROPERTY FROM THE KING COLLECTION, TEXAS
Private collection, Cleveland, Ohio;
Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York;
Acquired by the present owner from the above, March 2006.
Flint Institute of Arts, Flint Township, Michigan, "The Art of Collecting," November 29, 2003-January 5, 2003, no. 164;
El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, "Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection," September 8, 2013-January 5, 2014, no. 28.
P.S. Cable, Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection, exhibition catalogue, El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, 2013, pp. 85-87, no. 28, illustrated;
H. Adams, Painting in Pure Color, Modern Art in Cleveland before the Armory Show (1908-1913), Cleveland, Ohio, 2013, p. 78, illustrated.
This remarkable Fauve Landscape by William Sommer was painted in 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio, predating by one year the 1913 Armory Show in New York City which brought the first comprehensive exhibition of modern European painting to American soil. Equally fascinating is the fact that this quite radical work was painted by a talented, 45-year-old Midwestern commercial lithographer, who had encountered Fauvism not in Europe, but in Cleveland at second-hand, through an artist friend who had just returned from France. Thus, the landscape with its avant-garde palette of reds, violets and greens-the Fauve triad of secondary colors-bears witness to the complex avenues of artistic influence by which American artists of the early 20th century (even those working outside the major art centers) fell under the sway of the new Modernist vocabularies from Europe. Cleveland, in fact, became one of the hotbeds of the Modernist movement in the United States between 1910 and 1916, owing to a heady blend of commercial factors, happy accidents, and forward-thinking personalities.
Although not well known outside Cleveland art circles, William Sommer was one of America's earliest Modernist painters, and a major artistic force within the Cleveland artistic community during the 1910's until his death in 1949. His name is often mentioned in general histories of modern American art, in part because his work was lauded by the celebrated Cleveland-born poet Hart Crane. Born in Detroit to impoverished German immigrant parents, Sommer grew up in a neighborhood was so tough that, when playing as a child, he once found the bodies of two murdered hobos (biography adapted from William H. Robinson and David Steinberg, Transformations in Cleveland Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996, and Henry Adams, Out of the Kokoon, Cleveland, 2011). Fate intervened when the artist Julius Melchers, father of the painter Gari Melchers and himself a German immigrant, invited Sommer to attend his art classes free of charge. Under Melchers' tutelage Sommer acquired the requisite skills to secure a job with the Calvert Lithograph Company in Detroit. From there he worked in Boston for the Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Company, and then moved on to Europe where he worked for about a year at Stafford & Company in Nottingham, England, studying thereafter in Munich with Professors Joseph and Ludwig Herterich in 1890 and 1891. Interestingly, his goal in pursuing academic art training in Munich was to become a master lithographer rather than a fine artist. He took only drawing courses, never painting. His absorption with paint and color was still to come, although his impeccable grasp of draftsmanship, honed largely from drawing at a feverish pace every day in the lithography plants, held him in good stead throughout his life. Sommer drew with an enviable virtuosity that was much remarked upon, as well as elegance and economy. His line could effortlessly capture a figure, a face, or the expressive profile of a row of slender pine trees as seen in the present work.
Upon his return from Europe, Sommer settled initially in New York, where he married, started a family, and went to work as a lithographer for J. Ottman Lithographic Company. There he became fast friends with fellow lithographer, Carl Moellmann, who had studied painting with Robert Henri and became friendly with members of the so-called Ash Can School whose members painted with a new gritty urban realism. Although little is known about Sommer's activities in New York, we know that he and Moellmann were producing oil paintings in their free time in addition to working as commercial lithographers, and exhibiting at the Kit Kat Club, a bohemian artists' club. Sommer's paintings of that period, up until his move to Cleveland in 1907, resembled the Ash Can efforts in its vigorous brushwork and rather dark brownish palette. He was clearly an artistic sponge from the first, always on the lookout for exciting new artistic trends and developments.
Sommer and Moellmann came to Cleveland as part of a corporate raid launched by Otis Lithograph Company, one of the nation's premier producers of movie posters. Cleveland's ascendancy as one of America's greatest centers of commercial printing, rivaling even New York, demanded that top firms such as Otis secure the country's best talent, which translated into handpicking Moellmann and Sommer for their ranks, since the two were among the nation's most gifted and experienced poster artists. Soon, the commercial printing industry was drawing an enormous number of talented artists to Cleveland. And many of these figures, like Sommer, were also painting in their free time. The pool of talent in Cleveland opened up worlds of creative possibilities for its artistic denizens, including the formation of closely-knit artists groups inclined to radical artistic experimentation. Notable among these groups which rose up in Cleveland, and embraced the new "isms" coming across the pond in fits and starts, were the Cleveland Secessionists (1911) and the Kokoon Arts Club (1912). William Sommer was a central figure in both groups, and in his own painting moved rather quickly from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, to full-fledged Fauvism. Indeed, on the back of Fauve Landscape is a tamer impressionist-style work, The Mooring, which was doubtless painted only a short time before.
Interestingly, the fuel behind the Modernist fire in Cleveland was centered largely with the commercial artists who sought its liberation from the strictures of their daily grind. Paradoxically, however, the commercial work that Sommer and others like him produced six days a week at a grueling pace often made them more sophisticated colorists than many of the region's easel painters: they were excited rather than repulsed by the possibilities for chromatic extravagance inherent in the new painting styles. One major exception was longtime teacher at the Cleveland School of Art and Kokoon artist, Henry Keller, an ardent admirer of the work of Cezanne who advocated an openness to Modern art, and in fact, used the intense blue line around his forms which finds expression in this Fauve painting by Sommer.
Sommer's art began exploding with color following several blasts of Modernist influence which hit Cleveland in rather quick succession. The first was the 1910 exhibit of Post-Impressionist work by Clevelander Abe Warshawsky, who returned from Paris with paintings rendered in screaming yellows, searing greens and day-glo oranges which bewildered Cleveland audiences. Sommer by contrast was electrified. Another enormous influence on Sommers' art, and his adoption of the Fauvist manner in particular, was his fast friendship with his apprentice at Otis, a young immigrant known at the time as Billy Finkelstein, but who is now commonly known as the major American modernist painter and sculptor, William Zorach. In 1910, at Sommer's urging, Zorach abandoned his commercial work to go to Paris for a year where he encountered the paintings of Picasso and Matisse, and exhibited his own works in the 1911 Salon d'Automne. As Zorach later recalled: "Bill was always interested in new developments, and when I came back from Paris [in 1911] was all ears and eyes and asked me at length what was going on and what was doing in Paris, Upon my return, Bill immediately swung into the more abstract style of painting" (William Zorach to Mrs. Henry Francis, June 1. 1950, reproduced in Hunter Ingalls, "The Several Dimensions of William Sommer," PhD diss., Columbia University, 1970, p. 237).
A third important Modernist influence came through Cleveland artist August Biehle, who introduced Sommer to the bold expressive designs of the German Blue Rider group, notably the work of visionary artist Franz Marc he had encountered firsthand during studies in Germany in 1911. Biehle's own experience as a commercial decorator and stencil-maker predisposed him to a way of organizing forms in strong rhythmic patterns that had affinities with work of the German Modernists. Upon his return to Cleveland in 1912, Biehle frequently painted together with Sommer. During those excursions into the Cleveland landscape, Sommer picked up the powerful linear gestures from the work of Biehle and translated them into motifs such as the trees of Fauve Landscape.
In Fauve Landscape, Sommer quickly took the cue from Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck via William Zorach, and "used color with direct and intrepid force," as galleriest Hollis Taggart has remarked. Sommer understood the visual power exerted by placing warm and cool colors beside one another, pairing for example, saturated reds with soaring purples. A sensitive designer, Sommer spotted the Fauvist device of leaving parts of the design unpainted, to infuse a sense of light, atmosphere and directness into the composition. Any way one looks at it, this landscape is the work of a gifted artist ecstatic over the possibilities that were opening up in the world of painting immediately before the first world war.
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