art for everyone. every monday morning.
Sommer - U.S. Mail -  Brandywine Landscape .jpg

William Sommer • Ohio: 1867-1947

U.S. Mail - Brandywine LandscapeWatercolor on Paper 36” x 20.75” each

Believe it or not, early twentieth century Cleveland was one of the art capitols of the world. It was a time when modern art was exploding and a battle between modern artists and traditional Realists was being waged in America and Europe. In Cleveland the modernists found refuge in the Kokoon Club, inspired by New York’s famed Kit Kat Klub. The modernists certainly knew how to party as the Kokoon’s Annual Bal-Masque balls scandalized the city with “risqué activities, provocative art, nudity and was sometimes waggishly referred to as the ‘Cocaine Club’.

At the center of the bohemian celebration stood William Sommer, cofounder of the club that was northeast Ohio’s social and intellectual heart well into the 1940s. His was a story of great artistic talent, deep love, and alcoholic torment. It was as rich a brew as any Cleveland working-class brewery every put in a barrel. 

In 1907, Sommer found himself in the middle of a bubbling Cleveland art scene. He and August Biehle became two of its most prominent modernists. Sommer’s developed a signature style using compressed space, simplified forms and transparent watercolors as seen in his paintings U.S. Mail – Brandywine Landscape.

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By 1914, the scene in Cleveland was getting a bit wild for Sommer and his young family. He restored an old schoolhouse near Brandywine Falls south of Cleveland and moved his family to the verdant countryside. There the Sommers’ home again became a hub for the area’s bohemian painters and progressive poets. Among the frequent visitors was the celebrated Hart Crane who went on to greater poetic fame in New York City.

Unfortunately, William Sommer was as prolific a drinker as he was a painter. For fifty years his beloved wife, Martha, anchored his life. But, when she passed away in 1945, he began to spend more time at Morman’s Tavern, often trading valuable paintings for a bottle of liquor. By 1947 he had followed Martha to the grave, leaving behind some of the finest watercolor paintings the world had ever seen. The Kokoon Club staged its last Bal-Masque the same year.

Today, you can get a glimpse of this world by visiting the Canton Museum of Art.

Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection • Purchased in Memory of John Hemming Fry, 2011.18.1 & .B


4 Ways to Sound Smart When Viewing at The Canton Museum of Art

“You know Sommer was a member of New York City’s famed bohemian artists group known as the Kit Kat Klub, and co-founded Cleveland’s Kokoon Arts Club. Must have had a thing for ‘K’s’.”

“When offset printing came into being in the 1920’s, Sommer lost his job as a lithographer. Printing’s loss became art’s gain.”

“It’s said that Sommer could draw a life-size figure of a woman by taking a stick of charcoal, beginning at the head and going all the way down to the ankles without ever erasing.”

“U.S. Mail shows Sommer’s skill at adapting the aesthetics of WPA mural paintings to the watercolor medium.”


Sommer Timeline. Scroll over images to see timeline.