Palmer Museum of Art receives major work by William Louis Sonntag

July 01, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State has received "Autumn Landscape," a major work by American artist William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), from Hilary Peery Vesell.

Vesell donated the painting in honor of her late father, Dr. Elliot Vesell, who served for 32 years as the founding chair of pharmacology at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and 22 years as assistant dean of graduate studies at the Penn State College of Medicine. An Evan Pugh Professor, and later professor emeritus, he published more than 350 articles on pharmacogenomics and received many awards and honorary degrees, including an honorary degree from Penn State. He also edited several books and was a scholar of American art. His first publication on American art was written the summer between graduating from Harvard College and starting Harvard Medical School. He wrote the introduction to the "Life and Works of Thomas Cole" (Harvard University Press).

"Autumn Landscape," painted in 1864 during the ravages of the Civil War, offers a serene counterpoint to the weight of national strife at the time. It is characterized by a vivid palette, intricate brushwork, and subtle light and atmosphere; spans over four feet in length; and is now one of the largest American landscape paintings in the museum’s collection. This outstanding example of Sonntag’s mature style will be on view in the museum’s Benjamin and Lillian K. Snowiss Galleries of American Art beginning July 2.

“We are honored to add this major painting by a key figure in the Hudson River School to our collection of American art,” said Erin M. Coe, director of the Palmer. “Visitors from across Pennsylvania and beyond can experience this extraordinary gift, which greatly enhances our collection of 19th-century American landscape paintings.”

Born in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, Sonntag grew up in Cincinnati, traveled around Europe in the early 1850s, and settled in New York by 1857. His career flourished in subsequent decades as he annually exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the leading venue for the 19th-century landscape painters known as the Hudson River School.

Sonntag’s sketching trips to Virginia and New England in the early 1860s resulted in some of his finest compositions. His landscape scenes are generally composite compositions, rather than depictions of identifiable sites. "Autumn Landscape" presents many of the hallmarks that characterized Sonntag’s paintings of the period and elicited praise from viewers. Key elements of his style, such as the variegated foliage surrounding a central body of water, a pair of fishermen on a rugged outcropping at the shoreline, and a rustic log cabin, are all featured in this painting and are similar to Sonntag paintings held by other major public collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.


The Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus is a free-admission arts resource for the University and surrounding communities in central Pennsylvania. With a collection of more than 9,510 objects representing a variety of cultures and spanning centuries of art, the Palmer is the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Areas of strength include the museum’s collection of American art from the late 18th century to the present, Old Master paintings, prints and photography, ceramics and studio glass, and a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. The museum presents 10 exhibitions each year and, with 11 galleries, a print-study room, a 150-seat auditorium, and an outdoor sculpture garden, the Palmer is the leading cultural resource for this region.

The Palmer receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Museum hours are 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and some holidays. For more information or for the calendar of upcoming events, visit

Last Updated July 02, 2019