The Sonnenschein Collection of 58 old master drawings was gifted to Cornell College in the early 1950s by Robert Sonnenschein II. A Chicago native, Sonnenschein was a loyal patron of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which traveled annually to Mount Vernon, Iowa to take part in the May Music Festival. It was here that Sonnenschein befriended Russell D. Cole, president of Cornell College, and his wife, Arrola Cole. As a result of this friendship, Sonnenschein was compelled to donate a small part of his late parent’s art collection to the college.
Robert Sonnenschein II’s father, Edward Sonnenschein (1881-1935), was a founding member of the well-known and successful law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which until its 2010 merger with a London-based law firm, was the 58th largest firm by revenue in the United States and historically one of Chicago’s top firms. Edward Sonnenschein and his wife Louise were active art collectors during the 1920s and 1930s, traveling around the world collecting not just old master drawings, but art of varying media, especially important Chinese jades. Edward Sonnenschein died unexpectedly in 1935 and his widow Louise followed in 1949. In the years before her death, Louise and her son Robert generously gave large parts of their collections to various institutions, among them the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Cornell College.
The collection given to the Cranbrook Academy consisted of approximately 400 old master drawings and was donated to that school in 1954. In 1962, the Cranbrook Academy sought to transfer their collection to the near-by University of Michigan, where the Cranbrook Academy believed the drawings would in better hands and of greater use to students studying the history of art at the University. Due to legal issues regarding the estate of Edward Sonnenschein, the bulk of the drawings were returned to the Sonnenschein Estate and approximately 100 were purchased by or donated to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where they remain today. In 1974, Mary Cazort Taylor published a catalogue of the University of Michigan’s Sonnenschein Collection. The catalogue was the culmination of her study of the collection, which she began as a graduate student at the University. This book is the only other known study of any part of Edward Sonnenschein’s former collection of old master drawings and the University of Michigan Museum of Art is the only other institutional repository of the Sonnenschein drawings of which we are currently aware.
Cornell College was given 58 of Robert Sonnenschein II’s inherited drawings some time in the early 1950s, unframed and unaccompanied by documentation, apart from some artist attributions on the mats and supports of the drawings. It was not until 1966 that the drawings were first exhibited at Cornell, still with tentative attributions and little information, then again in 1972 and 1977. In the mid 1990s, the collection travelled to Davidson College and Fisk University in exchange for exhibitions belonging to those colleges to be displayed at Cornell. Before traveling to Davidson College, Cornell had the drawings professionally appraised for insurance purposes by the Alasko Company of Chicago, Illinois.