Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1873. Her great-great grandfather was the famous early American painter, Charles Willson Peale, who encouraged his children to pursue art, several of whom became successful artists. Ella was named after her great grandmother, Peale’s daughter, Sophonisba, who was in turn named after a woman artist from the Italian Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola. Hergesheimer embraced her family heritage and went by Sophonisba rather than by Ella.
As a child she was encouraged by the positive responses to her artwork. When she reached college age, she attended the Philadelphia School of Design for two years and then the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where she studied under William Merritt Chase, Hugh Breckenridge and Cecilia Beaux. She was judged the best student in her senior class at the Academy and was awarded a three year Cresson scholarship to travel to Europe. Between 1904 and 1907 she visited France, Spain, Germany, and Holland. In Paris, her work was displayed at the prestigious Salon.
Upon her return to the United States in 1907, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of Bishop Holland M. McTyeire, one of the founders of Vanderbilt University. She traveled to Nashville for the commission and liked the area so much that she lived there for the rest of her life. She painted many portraits of Tennessee notables (including Joseph W. Byrns, Congressman and Speaker of the House from Tennessee) and showed her work throughout the South, including the Appalachian Exposition of 1910 and the Tennessee State Exposition of 1926 where she won gold medals for her work. Her work is currently displayed in the United States Capitol building, at the Tennessee State Museum, and at Vanderbilt University. Hergesheimer died in Nashville in 1943.