William Louis Sonntag(1822 - 1900)
Upon moving to New York City in 1894, the novelist Theodore Dreiser spent several years writing freelance articles for popular magazines such as Munsey’s, Ainslee’s, Metropolitan and Demorest’s. To complement his texts, he commissioned illustrative material from artists whom he eventually befriended, such as the painter-turned-photographer Edwin Scott Bennett and the illustrator P. B. McCord. Dreiser’s circle of acquaintances from the art world also included the watercolorist and illustrator, William Louis Sonntag, Jr. (1869-1898).
Sonntag was an intriguing––and as it turns out––influential fellow. Born in New York City, he was the son of William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), a respected painter of the Hudson River School. Details about his early life are minimal: he learned the rudiments of art from his father and later enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design (in contrast to so many of his contemporaries, he chose to bypass study in Europe). Responding to the late nineteenth century taste for rural landscapes, Sonntag went on to paint delicate watercolors of scenery in upstate New York and New England, among them Country Hillside , in which he combined his interest in outdoor light effects with his love of detail. On the basis of such paintings, he was elected a member of the prestigious American Water Color Society in 1898.
However, Sonntag was more than just a master of watercolor. A gifted draftsman, he also made drawings of current events for New York’s newspapers and magazines, delighting editors with his ability for quick and accurate sketching. In 1895, his scenes of New York night life, published in one of the city’s Sunday papers, attracted the attention of Dreiser, who invited Sonntag to produce a drawing for Ev’ry Month. As Dreiser related it, Sonntag could talk easily about art, literature, music, politics and history and he was “very ambitious. He was bubbling over with the enthusiasm of youth and an intense desire for recognition. He knew he had talent . . . [and] was altogether full of his own hopes and ambitions (Theodore Dreiser, “W.L.S.” in Twelve Men, 1919, 326). Known too, as “a genial and companionable gentleman [whose] spirits were high and contagious” (“W. Louis Sonntag, Jr., Collier’s Weekly, 21 May 1898), he was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s, he socialized with all the New York artists and on top of that he was an accomplished singer, bicycle enthusiastic, amateur photographer, designer and maker of ship models. It’s not surprising that he and Dreiser became good friends, Sonntag’s outgoing personality and philosophy about life nurturing Dreiser’s own development as a writer. His work ethic impressed Dreiser too: even though Sonntag had lost an eye during the early 1890s, he painted and drew until his untimely death from malaria (probably contracted while covering the war in Cuba) at the age of twenty-nine.
Sonntag’s memory survives in the charming watercolors he left behind and, thanks to Dreiser, he also occupies a place in the annals of American literature. It was Sonntag’s artistic career and his vital personality that served as a model for Dreiser’s characterization of the striving painter-illustrator Eugene Witla, the hero of his novel, The Genius (1915) (see “Biographical Sketches” in Theodore Dreiser, Twelve Men, edited by Robert Coltrane, 1998). As a legacy, it can’t get any better than that.