A native of Pennsylvania, William Louis Sonntag spent his formative years as an artist in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became regarded as the city’s most eminent landscape painter. In 1853, Sonntag made the first of several trips to Europe, traveling to Florence, Italy, with his friend and colleague, the landscape painter Robert Scott Duncanson. In 1856, Sonntag settled permanently in New York, where he flourished as a painter of romantic Hudson River landscapes and Italian scenes.
In 1886, Sonntag painted this large vertical panorama of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a majestic gorge located on the Yellowstone River in the Yellowstone National Park. Despite its detailed appearance, there is no evidence that Sonntag ever visited Yellowstone. The composition is based on an 1885 photograph of the canyon taken by Frank Jay Haynes (1853-1921), who established a studio and gallery in Yellowstone in 1884, and became the park’s official photographer. Since Hayne’s photograph was black and white, the coloration of Sonntag’s painting might have been based on Thomas Moran’s 1871 watercolor sketch of the canyon, which was reproduced as a chromolithograph in an album entitled The Yellowstone National Park, published in 1876.