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.
Works by William Sommer
Seated Female William Sommer
Woman with Striped Stockings, ca. 1918 William Sommer
Brandywine Landscape, ca. 1918 William Sommer
Solitude, ca. 1920 William Sommer
Winter, Brandywine William Sommer
A Monument to Bondage William Sommer
Adam & Eve William Sommer
Figures William Sommer
Lakewood Houses William Sommer
Horse and Covered Cart in Town , 1921 William Sommer
Cow in Landscape, 1925 William Sommer
Summer Day, ca. 1925 William Sommer
Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1925 William Sommer
Interior with Boy, c. 1930 William Sommer
The Band William Sommer
Nude with Umbrella & Figures, 1934 William Sommer
Houses by the Roadside, Brandywine, ca. 1940 William Sommer
Brandywine Landscape With Goats, 1943 William Sommer
Brandywine Landscape with Goats and Chickens, 1943 William Sommer
Purple Barn, Brandywine, 1944 William Sommer
Seated Child, Tess, ca. 1915 William Sommer
Seated Nude, ca. 1918 William Sommer
Portrait of a Woman, c.1920 William Sommer
The Plaid Jacket, c. 1928 William Sommer
Study for ‘Horse and Covered Cart in Town’, ca. 1918-19 William Sommer
Mazda Study, ca. 1930 William Sommer
Sketches of Cows William Sommer
Sketches of Horses William Sommer
Plowing, c. 1920 William Sommer
Boy Eating an Apple William Sommer
Interior Scene with Man Reading, 1898 William Sommer
Study for ‘Houses and Pink Clouds’, Lakewood, ca. 1912 William Sommer
Houses and Pink Clouds, Lakewood, ca 1912 William Sommer
Two Heads William Sommer
Brandywine Country, ca. 1920 William Sommer
Cubist Houses, ca. 1923-24 William Sommer
Portrait of Mrs. Sommer, ca. 1925 William Sommer
Brandywine Landscape, 1935 William Sommer
William Sommer - Horse and Rider, c.1940 William Sommer