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$ 325,000

Dream of Italy

Origin United States
Period 19th Century
Materials Oil on canvas
Dimensions
W. 55 in; H. 35.25 in;
W. 139.7 cm; H. 89.54 cm;
Condition Excellent.
Creation Date about 1858-60
Description Signed (at lower left): W L Sonntag

William Louis Sonntag was born to a family of German extraction in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, a small town that is now a part of Pittsburgh. (This essay is informed by Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, William Louis Sonntag: Artist of the Ideal [1980], the only modern treatment of the artist and his career.) Sonntag’s family moved the following year to Cincinnati. Although his desire to be an artist dated from an early age, his father doubted the practicality of such a career, and instead apprenticed the young Sonntag to a carpenter. This apprenticeship was short-lived, as were other attempts to dissuade Sonntag from the arts. Some time around 1842, Sonntag’s father relented, and the young aspiring artist sought art instruction. Since no records of any schooling survive, it has been suggested that Sonntag was possibly self-taught.

In 1846, while he was supporting himself by working locally as a diorama painter, Sonntag exhibited a landscape of Kentucky at the American Art-Union, New York, marking the first time that his work was featured in a major art arena. Soon thereafter, he opened his own studio in Cincinnati, and it was then that he produced his first major work. The Reverend Elias Lyman Magoon, a Baptist minister in Cincinnati, encouraged Sonntag to paint a series of paintings based on “The Ages,” a poem by William Cullen Bryant. The result was the four-painting Progress of Civilization (location unknown), which was almost certainly inspired by Thomas Cole’s famous Course of Empire series (The New-York Historical Society). In 1850, Sonntag painted his only known panorama, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (location unknown), based on Milton’s epic poem. It was exhibited at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, New York, in 1851. Both of these projects, in scope and subject, did much to add to Sonntag’s reputation, and established him as a promising and ambitious young artist.

In 1853, Sonntag made his first trip to Europe, armed with commissions for landscapes of European subjects and accompanied by fellow Cincinnati artists John R. Tait and Robert S. Duncanson. The trio remained in Europe for eight months. Although Sonntag’s itinerary is not precisely known, it is believed that he traveled to Paris and London, where he may have received some artistic instruction. Upon his return, and after a brief stay in New York, Sonntag returned to Cincinnati, where he completed the commissions that funded his European sojourn.

Sonntag returned to Europe in 1855, staying primarily in Florence, on a trip that was central to subsequent developments in his career. Italian rather than American landscapes now predominated in his oeuvre. Sonntag came home to America sometime in the summer of 1856 and settled in New York, frequently shuttling back and forth to Cincinnati, where he likely maintained a number of patrons. As the demand for his Italian landscapes grew, Sonntag seems to have entertained the idea of expatriating himself to Italy, as revealed in the following notice in the Cosmopolitan Art Journal:

Sonntag remains in town, busy with his many commissions. He will remain in this country until next summer, when, with his family, he will “emigrate” to Italy, for a permanent residence. He proposes to devote his life there to his art, and has it in his mind’s intent to produce greater works than have yet come from his hands (“Our Artists and Their Whereabouts,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, II [September 1858], p. 209).

Evidently hoping to make good on this promise for “greater works,” Sonntag set to work on a series of large Italianate landscapes, to which the present painting belongs. The largest of these landscapes is a massive canvas (60 x 96 inches), also with the title Dream of Italy (1859, sold by Hirschl & Adler to The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio, in 2004), that was recently rediscovered after its whereabouts went unknown for over a century. Considered by Sonntag to be his magnum opus, Dream of Italy was intended from the start as a major exhibition piece. It was shown widely to enthusiastic audiences, provoked a controversy in the discourse on landscape painting, and thrust Sonntag into the limelight. A close reading of the critical response to Sonntag’s huge painting sheds light on the artist’s innovative contribution to landscape painting at this juncture.

Finished early in 1859, Dream of Italy immediately went on view at the Williams, Stevens and Williams Gallery, New York, in February of that year. Williams, Stevens and Williams had previously established itself as a major exhibition venue when Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental Niagara (1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) was shown there on two occasions in 1857 and 1858, attracting huge numbers of visitors. Sonntag’s picture garnered a great deal of critical attention. The critic in The Crayon felt that Dream of Italy was “a decided advance on the previous effort of this artist” (“Exhibitions,” The Crayon, VI [December 1859], p. 382), while another critic called it “a work of high order and excellence, [which] will add measurably to the artist’s already eminent reputation” (“Art Gossip,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, III [December 1859], p. 233). The New York Herald gave the work an even more pronounced endorsement:

M. Sonntag’s “Dream of Italy,” at present on exhibition in the Dusseldorf Gallery, is a work to which full justice has not been done. It will never do to judge of such a composition by the strict canons of art as applied to landscape painting. The work is as it should be—full of poetic sentiment—exhibiting, it is true, in its expression some of the peculiarities of the painter’s early training, but still transcending in its aims and actual success similar efforts by older and more firmly established artists. . . . The painter seeks to present us with a vision embodying the traditions and climatic charms of that classic and poetic land. Here his fancy must be allowed full play, and he should receive the credit which is due to him for realizing so successfully one of the most difficult fights that a painter’s ambition can soar to (“Fine Arts,” New York Herald, no. 8477 (November 21, 1859), p. 5).

A more negative opinion was sounded by the critic of The New York Times:

The picture is very large, and very ambitious in its subject and mode of treatment. It represents an extended landscape, with mountains on the right, falling off into a broken plain upon the left. The ruins of the former grandeur of Italy add picturesqueness and human interest to the scene, the hint of which seems to have been taken from TURNER’S well-known landscape of the same name. We cannot praise SONNTAG’S picture. In composition it is commonplace; its forms are not clearly made out, and its color is crude and muddy.

This review was answered five days later in an anonymous letter to the Times, which Nancy Moure supposes was written by Algernon S. Sullivan, a “self-styled public relations man . . ., who met Sonntag in 1857 and was so impressed by the beauty of his painting that he began to promote Sonntag via letters-to-the-editors [sic] of newspapers” (Moure, op. cit., p. 22):

Mr. Sonntag is a young artist, residing in this city. He is a native of Pennsylvania, and descended from an old family of that State. Since his return from Italy his new picture has been painted, and it has had a large number of visitors at the Dusseldorf Gallery. Artists and critics generally have studied and admired it. The author of a notice in the Times of the 24th inst. has not been favorably impressed by the picture. How far that difference of opinion can be entertained by general criticism or artistic canons, is a question.

The taste with which the artist has selected that which is characteristic and picturesque in Italy, and the grouping of these objects for one coup d’oeil, instantly pleases the spectator. The faultless harmony in the picture, although the colors are in a very high key, next challenges the approval of a critic, and will be the more admired the more it is considered. But the picture excels preeminently in another artistic feature; its management of colors to produce a transparent atmosphere and the effect of distance. It is a clear picture. One does not see paint in it. The objects are distinctly outlined, and they fade or become shadowy at the true distances of Nature. The colors are laid on pure and unmixed, so as to blend to the eye, in the proper tints, and produce a more sparkling light, than if mingled too much before reaching the canvas. Many persons look at SONNTAG’S “Dream of Italy,” and compare it to TURNER’S “Modern Italy.” This is well. The two pictures, drawn from the same land, are altogether different, in feeling, in design, in the objects chosen, and in treatment. Each is original in conception as it is different in handling and color, and hence the pleasure in comparing them. We venture to assert, however, that an Italian in exile would be more agreeably touched by SONNTAG’S ideal—truthful, yet dreamy—than by TURNER’S. The “Dream” is a view, under an Italian sky and in Italian atmosphere, of mountains, plateaus, ruins, pavements, woods, flowers, Roman masonry—all painted by Sonntag, from nature.

In reading the preceding two reviews and letter above, it becomes clear that Sonntag’s dramatic canvas presented a challenge to conventional ideas concerning the landscape genre. Sullivan’s letter was careful to point out the stylistic elements of Sonntag’s picture that were unique and defied convention, and the reviewer in the Herald praised both Sonntag’s unconventional painting technique and the “fancy” of his composition. Even the author of the New York Times review had to reluctantly acknowledge the ambition on the part of the artist in producing such a large and boldly painted work.

Sonntag’s overall move toward Italianate subjects came during a time in which what was considered the ideal form of landscape painting was undergoing a great debate. While some critics, such as Henry Tuckerman, approved of the type of imaginary Arcadian scenes of Italy that Sonntag and others were producing during this period, others favored a more truthful, highly realistic and topographical style, as promoted by the influential English critic and historian, John Ruskin. Dream of Italy, Sonntag’s dreamy, high-keyed exhibition piece, served as a lightning rod for this debate, which is reflected in the differing responses in the press. (For more on the changing attitudes toward American landscapes of Italy, see Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., “American Painters and the Lure of Italy,” in Stebbins, The Lure of Italy: American Artists and The Italian Experience, exhib. cat. [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1992], especially pp. 51–52).

The success of Dream of Italy catapulted Sonntag momentarily into the front rank of artists in New York. In March 1860, one reviewer suggested that he “should be glad to see this noble work done on steel,” (“Art-Gossip,” Cosmopolitan Art Journal, IV [March 1860], p. 34), although no reproduction of this work appears to have been produced. In May, perhaps due in part to the success of Dream of Italy, Sonntag was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design. He was advanced to full membership the following year.

In the years that followed, Sonntag was unable to match the success and fame he received following the second exhibition of Dream of Italy. Contrary to what had been published, Sonntag never moved permanently to Italy, although he evidently made several return trips during the 1860s. Perhaps he had earned enough commissions in the wake of his success that he became reluctant to leave America. He now turned increasingly toward local, rather than foreign, subjects for his canvases, as the taste for Italian subjects began to wane. In 1869, Sonntag’s first child was born, which perhaps prompted him to settle in New York, where he remained until his death. Sonntag’s output remained high, but over the years he began to incorporate influences from the Barbizon School, abandoning his earlier, more personal style. Sonntag appears to have been a family man who, once settled, placed more emphasis on securing a steady income than pursuing the type of ambitious career he had courted in his youth. He did remain within the established art circles, though, as he exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Brooklyn Art Association, New York; and the Boston Athenaeum.

Sonntag painted a number of smaller Italianate landscapes in the manner of his epic Dream of Italy. Of the extant paintings, the present canvas is, along with Classic Italian Landscape with Temple of Venus (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the largest. In fact, before the Dayton Institute’s Dream of Italy was located, Nancy Moure speculated that perhaps the Corcoran painting was in fact the great lost work (op. cit., p. 23) because of its size. Other related works are Italian Lake with Classical Ruins (Dartmouth College Museum and Galleries, Hanover, New Hampshire); Classic Italian Landscape with Roman Ruins (private collection, New London, Connecticut); and the smaller Dream of Italy (Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida).

Compositionally and stylistically, this version of Dream of Italy is remarkably similar to the Dayton painting, with the same grouping of trees at left, overgrown stones in the foreground, and Temple of Venus at the right. There are slight differences in the bridges in the foreground and the middleground, and the general shape of the mountains in the distance. While there are no figures in the present canvas, the same dreamy, high-keyed light is employed in both, allying this painting closely with Sonntag’s working aesthetic of the late 1850s and early 1860s. Sonntag’s idealized landscapes of Italy made a distinctive contribution to the discourse and practice of landscape painting in America during a time when American landscape painting was in a period of flux between the established truth-to-nature approach of the Hudson River School and new influences from the French Barbizon painters. This impressive work captures Sonntag at the height of his career, and is a record of a time when public demand for dramatic landscapes fueled artists’ ambitions for fame and fortune.
Styles / Movements Realism
Dealer Reference Number APG 8888.001
Incollect Reference Number 233604
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