I have said on a number of occasions that one of the joys of visiting art galleries is when you suddenly come across one you did not know existed. It is always a pleasure to go to the large and famous galleries such as the Louvre, Prado, and London’s National Gallery to name just a few but I find it exhilarating when I come across, often by accident, the smaller, more hidden-away ones such as London’s Wallace Collection or the Musée Marmottan Monet Gallery in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. I had visited Birmingham before and visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but a fortnight ago I decided to visit the city again and have a look at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which is on the University of Birmingham campus. If I had not decided on that visit I would never have come across a divine portraiture work of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun which I enthused about in my last blog and which was part of their permanent collection. However the reason for me going to the gallery was to see an exhibition of the Norwegian painter Thomas Fearnley and today I want to talk a little about the life of this artist and look at one of the paintings which was in the exhibition.
Thomas Fearnley, although an English-sounding name, was Norwegian. He was a romantic painter who was born in 1802 in Frederikshald, Norway, a small town in the south east of the country, a few miles from the Norwegian-Swedish border. The town has since been renamed Halden. The Fearnley family maintained its custom of naming its eldest sons Thomas and so both his father and grandfather were named Thomas. His grandfather was an English timber merchant from Heckmondwike, a small mill town near Leeds, and who with his family moved to Norway in 1753 as a representative for a trading company based in the English seaport of Hull. Fearnley’s father Thomas was also a merchant and married Maren Sophie Paus, a woman from the important Norwegian Paus dynasty. Thomas was the eldest of their eight children.
Thomas Fearnley’s father owned a shop in Frederikshald and earned his money as an importer/exporter, importing woollen and cloth goods from England and exporting Norwegian lumber. At the age of five, young Thomas went to live with his maternal aunt, Karen and her husband, Georg Frederik Hagemann in Christiania, (now known as Oslo). The couple had no children of their own and were delighted to have Thomas live with them. When Thomas was twelve years old he was enrolled as a pupil in the cadet corps of the Military Academy. At the Academy, one of the subjects Thomas was taught was drawing. It was soon clear that he had a talent for drawing and excelled in these lessons. However he achieved less in his other subjects especially in the military training and he left the Academy in the spring of 1819.
As his father and his father’s father before him had all been merchants, it was expected that Thomas would follow suit and at the age of sixteen, for a while, he took on the role of a young merchant in his uncle’s business. However Thomas had not given up his love of drawing and every evening he would attend an elementary art class in Christiania, where he spent time copying still lifes and portraits painted by various artists.
To become an artist in Norway was quite difficult as there were no major art academies where aspiring artists could learn their trade. It could well be this factor, which forced Fearnley to travel extensively through Europe visiting major art institutions. In late 1821 he travelled to Copenhagen and enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. It was here that he came across Dutch landscape paintings of Nordic scenes by the likes of Jacob van Ruisdael. It was these seventeenth century works, which influenced Fearnley and it was these depictions of Nordic landscapes, which would play an important role in Norwegian art and Norwegian artists such as Thomas Fearnley.
In 1823, aged twenty-one, Fearnley left Copenhagen and went to live in Stockholm where he attended the Drawing Class at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts enrolling on a four-year course. During this period Thomas received a number of commissions for his landscape work including a three-painting commission from the country’s royal family. During his time at the Academy, he would take the opportunity, during summer breaks in the art course, to travel back to Norway to sketch the wild and rugged landscape of his homeland. It was at this juncture in his artistic career that he completed his first en plein air oil sketch. It was also during one of these visits to western Norway, in 1826, that he first encountered another artist on an art tour. He was Johan Christian Dahl, who would become the first great romantic painter in Norway, and one of the great European artists of all time. Dahl is now looked upon as the founder of the “golden age” of Norwegian painting.
Fearnley’s four-year art course at the Copenhagen Academy ended in 1829 and Fearnley continued with his European travels, this time going to Dresden. It was in this city that Fearnley again meets Dahl and they soon become friends and Thomas received some artistic tuition from him. One of Dahl’s other artistic friends and near neighbour was the German artist Casper David Friedrich. Fearnley spent time studying Friedrich’s work and one can see in a number of Fearnley’s landscape works a characteristic employed by Friedrich – figures in the paintings are seen from behind. Fearnley studied the different ways in which Dahl and Friedrich worked. J C Dahl used rapid brushstrokes in his paintings whilst Casper Friedrich was much slower and more methodical and his landscapes often had religious connotations. The study of these two great artists was to influence Fearnley’s art in the future.
From Dresden Fearnley travelled to Prague, Nuremberg and the lake district of Salzburg before finally settling in Munich in 1830. He was to remain in the Bavarian city for two years often travelling south to the foothills of the Bavarian Alps on painting trips. Following his two-year sojourn in Munich he and two other fellow artist Wihelm Bendz and Joseph Petzl set off on foot at the end of August 1832 on their 700 kilometre trek to Italy, passing through the Bavarian alpine village of Ramsau, which is the setting for my Daily Art Display’s featured painting today. The en plein air oil on paper, laid on canvas, sketch was completed by Thomas Fearnley within a week in 1832 and is simply entitled Ramsau. This was the first painting I came across when I entered the gallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which was staging Thomas Fearnley’s exhibition In front of Nature. It was, by far, my favourite of all his works on show and was of great interest to me as I have visited the picturesque Alpine village of Ramsau on a number of occasions when I toured around Berchtesgadener Land in southern Bavaria.
The sketch is dated September 20th 1832 and diaries kept by Wilhelm Bendz record that it was the last day the intrepid trio stayed in the village before heading across the Alps to Italy. In the picture we can see the road winding and disappearing around a corner of the village before we catch a glimpse of it again as it heads off towards their destination, the snow-covered Alps. There is a beautiful stillness about this picture. In the left middle ground we see a solitary farmer collecting hay, which will be needed for the harsh and bitterly cold winter, which is fast approaching. In the background we see the majestic snow-capped mountain, Hoher Göll, which straddles the border between the German state of Bavaria and the Austrian city of Salzburg. This en plein air work would have taken Fearnley several sittings during the week-long stay, on each occasion adding another layer of colour.
It is interesting to note that whilst the intrepid trio were in Ramsau William Bendz also completed an en plein air oil sketch of the village from almost the same vantage point used by Fearnley. Bendz was principally a figure painter and this landscape work of his is a comparative rarity. You will see from Bendz’s picture that unlike the deliberate and carefully detailed picture painted by Fearnley over a seven-day period, the foreground and some other areas of Bendz’s work were hastily sketched in and the work would probably have been completed within a day or two. William Bendz’s work, which was dated September 1830, two years earlier than Fearnley’s sketch, and entitled The Church of Ramsau, Austria, can be found in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
In my next blog I will conclude my look at the life of Thomas Fearnley and follow his journey through Europe visiting the Neapolitan and Amalfi Coasts as well as visiting England and travelling around the Lake District.
To end on a slightly sad note, Fearnley’s companion on his trek to Italy, which started in September 1832, Wilhelm Bendz, made it to Venice but soon after, in the November of that same year, on reaching Vincenza, he took ill and died from a lung infection. Bendz had noted in his diary that the road to Rome was hard, the weather conditions unfavourable and at times extremely harsh and the walking very strenuous and the exertion obviously took the ultimate toll of him.