William L. Sonntag, Jr. was widely admired for his skills as a draftsman, especially his ability for quick and accurate sketching. An active participant in New York art life during the late 1880s and 1890s, Sonntag was an accomplished illustrator, his truthful depictions of New York City serving as an important source of inspiration for the author, Theodore Dreiser. Sonntag was also known for his deftly rendered portrayals of ships, trains and machinery as well as for his delicate, plein air inspired landscapes.
Born in New York City in 1869, Sonntag was the son of William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), the noted Hudson River School painter. Little is known about Sonntag's early life. He may have received some training from his father before attending classes at the National Academy of Design, where he exhibited his work in 1888, 1889 and 1890. He later became a member of the American Water Color Society.
During these years, Sonntag painted landscapes in upstate New York and throughout New England, often in the company of his father. A gifted draftsman, as well as a student of mechanics and a member of several local engineering societies, he was equally fond of depicting locomotives, sailing vessels and complicated mechanical devices in both pen and ink and watercolor. Sonntag also made on-the-spot drawings of current news events for many of New York's newspapers and magazines; his penchant for accuracy was such that he once rode on the footplate of a moving train in order to produce an authentic rendering for Stephen Crane's article, "The Scotch Express". In 1895, Sonntag's scenes of New York night life, published in one of the "great Sunday papers", attracted the attention of Theodore Dreiser, then an editor, who commissioned Sonntag to produce a series of drawings for Ev'ry Month. The two men soon became good friends, Sonntag's art, personality and his philosophy about life serving to nurture Dreiser's own development as a writer.
Sonntag's death at the age of twenty-nine cut short a lively and promising career. Although he had lost an eye a few years prior to his death, he continued to paint and draw until his final trip to the hospital, leaving his desk filled with "several inventions and many plans of useful things". Dreiser later paid a personal tribute to Sonntag's memory through an article in Harper's Weekly. 1
1. Theodore Dreiser, "The Color of To-Day", Harper's Weekly (14 December 1909): 1272-1273.
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