Robert Bordner, Richfield, Ohio
Gift to Akron Art Institute (Museum), 1973
2007 - : McDowell galleries, 7/7/07 - , Akron Art Museum
1997 - 1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97 - 1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1996: "Akron's Own Rings: Five Passions in World Art" 6/22/96 - 8/11/96, Akron Art Museum
1993 - 1994: "The Art of William Sommer" 11/6/93 - 1/9/94, Akron Art Museum
1991: "Works by Ohio Artists from the Last 80 Years" 6/29/91 - 10/6/91, Akron Art Museum
1970: "William Sommer Retrospective" 10/25/70 - 11/29/70, Akron Art Institute (Museum)
Recto: Signed LL by both William Sommer and his son, Edwin G. Sommer
Bordner Mural, around 1936–37
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
As a commissioned piece, the Bordner Mural may not be William Sommer's most daring work, but it exemplifies his style, his favorite subject matter, and his greatest gift: a fanciful, innovative approach that enabled him to transform his everyday northeastern Ohio surroundings into a transcendent vision of the world. The Bordner Mural is one of thirty-seven paintings, watercolors, prints, and drawings by Sommer in the collection of the Akron Art Museum.
Sommer was born in Detroit to German immigrant parents. His artistic skills were apparent at an early age, but pursuing a fine art career was out of the question for someone of little means. Consequently, Sommer left school at the age of fourteen to learn commercial lithography. After completing an apprenticeship in 1888, he worked on the East Coast and in England, all the while harboring a desire to create fine art. In February 1890 a generous friend took Sommer to Munich, where he studied painting through March 1891. During his year in Munich he obtained a solid conservative education.
Upon his return Sommer resumed his career in lithography. Settling in New York, he married, had three sons, ventured into the fine arts community to socialize with other artists, and produced earthen-hued portraits. In 1907 he joined the Otis Lithograph Company in Cleveland, where he met William Zorach, Abel Warshawsky, and other innovative artists and was introduced to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. A quick learner, he mastered each one in turn, and then progressed through several phases of modern art in just a few years.1
In 1914 Sommer moved to a country home between Cleveland and Akron. This shift from a crowded urban setting to a hilly, wooded, four-acre lot energized the artist, spurring him to new levels of creativity. In an abandoned schoolhouse-turned-studio, he started experimenting more, adding watercolor to his repertoire and finding new inspiration in music and literature. The influence of Vorticism—a British variant of Cubism—was discernible by the early 1920s in Sommer's use of more angular, denser forms. His subjects, however, came directly from his rustic surroundings: landscapes, livestock, neighborhood children, and still lifes.
Despite heavy drinking, financial woes, and periodic bouts with depression, Sommer continued to grow artistically. By the late 1920s his own unique style emerged. The Bordner Mural, which is also signed by the artist's middle son, Edwin,2 exemplifies that style: a combination of the innovations of European modernism with rural midwestern imagery. The work was probably commissioned by Ruth Bordner as a birthday gift for her husband Robert, a Sommers family friend. This scene, which hung over the Bordners' mantel for some thirty years, is believed to depict their home and land.3
The overall composition is a product of the artist's eye more than reality. Characteristically, Sommer stylized the components of the scene using a range of hues; some images are simplified, others are adorned with decorative flourishes. The sky is filled with dramatic sun rays, and clouds appear as bold organic shapes. While the details of the painting—from the vague slope of the land to the two buildings—relay a sense of the site, personal expression is more important than accuracy of representation. The ground has been broken into a number of different color fields defined by curves and angles. Sommer's neat arrangement of cows, horses, and chickens certainly owes more to his quest for balance than to the animals' cooperation. Even inclusion of the seated boy was probably the artist's idea, for the Bordners were childless.
- Wendy Kendall-Hess, 2001
1. To best comprehend the ideas underlying these styles, Sommer read voraciously and attended exhibitions, most notably the famed Armory Show of 1913, but it is uncertain whether he did so in New York or Chicago.
2. Although Edwin Sommer's signature attests that he worked on this piece, the painting appears no different than those executed wholly by William Sommer. Consequently, it is treated here as a William Sommer work.
3. Convincing evidence for both of these theories, drawn from a number of people who knew both the Bordners and William Sommer, can be found in Wendy Kendall-Hess,"From Mantel to Museum: The History of William and Edwin Sommers' The Bordner Mural," in Cleveland as a Center of Regional American Art (Cleveland: Cleveland Artists Foundation, 1994), 55–62.
Kendall-Hess, Wendy. The Art of William Sommer. Akron: Akron Art Museum, 1993.
McClelland, Elizabeth. William Sommer: Cleveland’s Early Modern Master. Cleveland: John Carroll University, 1992.
Robinson, William H., and David Steinberg. Transformations in Cleveland Art, 1796–1946: Community and Diversity in Early Modern America. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996.