Rare Painting by Private Henry Sommer of a c. 1850s Mormon Household
Rare Painting by Private Henry Sommer of a c. 1850s Mormon Household – This watercolor or gouache painting on paper, by Henry Sommer ,depicts, as his hand inked tile states, at the bottom of the image, “Interior of a Mormon House”. The colors remain quite vivid, and the condition of this rare painting is quite good, with some foxing that could be reversed by a skilled conservator. The work is signed by Sommer and dated, 1859, in the lower left corner of the painting, with Sommer’s German name. The National Museum of the United States Army maintains a group of Sommer’s works, although the vast majority post-date the Mormon expedition, when Sommer went, with the army, to California. Needless to say, this painting is an extremely rare example of the work of an army artist, assigned to duty during a tumultuous time in the early days of America’s West. The painting, which is not framed, measures as follows: Paper – 10” x 7.25”; sight size – 8” x 5.25”
Henry Sommer was a native of Cassel, Germany, where he studied drafting and architecture in college. After immigrating to the United States he was unable to find work and enlisted in the Army, some time in 1856 or early 1857. Sommer would accompany U.S. Army troops, dispatched by then President James Buchanan, In 1857-1858, Buchanan sent U.S. forces to the Utah Territory in what became known as the Utah Expedition, to quell what was perceived as a rebellion by Mormons .The Mormons, fearful that the large U.S. military force had been sent to annihilate them and having faced persecution in other areas, made preparations for defense. Although bloodshed was to be avoided, with the U.S. government hoping that its purpose might be attained without the loss of life, both sides prepared for war. Firearms were manufactured or repaired by the Mormons, scythes were turned into bayonets, and long-unused sabres were burnished and sharpened. Private was assigned to the 7th Infantry and soon journeyed three months overland to Utah Territory where he was stationed at Camp Floyd, then the largest Army post in the nation. Sommer drew a number of sketches for his company commander during the trip, which the officer displayed in his quarters. The paintings and drawings depicted the surrounding landscape, as well as numerous military scenes, including camp scenes exhibiting then junior officers, who would achieve fame during the Civil War. The detail and accuracy of Sommer’s work caught the attention of Captain James Simpson, Corps of Topographical Engineers, who had arrived at Camp Floyd after mapping the main emigrant road west from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Army Soldiers played a crucial role in defining and defending the expanding boundaries of the American frontier. The output of Army painters, draftsmen and photographers was essential in communicating the drama and beauty of the West to a curious public on the eastern side of the Mississippi River.
In the spring of 1859, Simpson was preparing for the second leg of his trip, to southern California, when the expedition photographer discovered he had exhausted his supply of photographic chemicals. With no way to resupply, Simpson was forced to seek another approach to document the western landscape. Private Sommer was enlisted to accompany the officer and his team on their adventure across the desert.
Over the next several months, Sommer sketched the numerous peaks and valleys that marked the far west of the United States. His work included interpretations of the vast salt flats near the Great Salt Lake as well as the chill blue waters of Lake Tahoe. When the Simpson expedition was complete, Sommer returned to his company at Camp Floyd, where his drawings were shipped back to Washington, D.C., and incorporated into the official expedition report published by Congress. Few readers realized the beautiful drawings were from the talented hand of this soldier turned artist.