The Labro Falls at Kongsberg
- Artist: Thomas Fearnley
- Creation date: 1837
- Object type: Painting
Thomas Fearnley is the cosmopolite of earlynineteenth- century Norwegian art. After studying first at the academies in Copenhagen and Stockholm and then under J.C. Dahl in Dresden, he spent a few years in Munich before moving on to Italy, Switzerland, France, and England. He then lived for a while in Norway, spent a winter in Amsterdam, and died in Munich not quite forty years old.
Fearnley had learned from Dahl to be true to nature when making sketches. He had also learned – both in Stockholm and from his encounter with the Munich school – to compose paintings that were detached from the immediate impressions of the landscape. In The Labro Falls at Kongsberg, Fearnley converted his sketches into a spectacular landscape with gloomy overtones.
The picture’s middle ground is dominated by the rapids, while further into the foreground the river forms an elliptical stage, with the trees to the left serving as a sidewing that adds depth. The foreground is shadowy, while the waterfall and the logs on the bank are sharply illuminated. Clouds hang heavy over the forested mountainsides, allowing brighter hills to create a sense of depth. It is this fascination with the forces of nature, as frightening as they are alluring, that make romantic landscape paintings sublime. The severely miniaturized human forms so typical of romanticism helps underscore the vastness of the landscape. By scrutinizing the painting we discover loggers, a woman blowing a wooden horn, and an eagle that symbolizes the forces of nature. The meticulously detailed depiction of the foreground testifies to Fearnley’s education from the academy in Copenhagen, where the study of botanical details in nature was strongly encouraged.
Born 1802 in Halden, Halden, death 1842 in München, Tyskland
Thomas Fearnley died at the early age of 39, but left behind a rich legacy in art history. His large paintings such as The Labro Falls and The Grindelwald Glacier bring us closer to nature as he experienced it.
Thomas Fearnley was born in Fredrikshald, today called Halden. When he was only five years old he was sent to Christiania (today Oslo) to live with his aunt and uncle. He later began studying at the Norwegian Military Academy, one of very few places in the country that offered instruction in drawing. However, he had trouble concentrating at school, and cut short his military education. When he was 17 he began to take an evening course at the newly established Drawing School (Tegneskolen) while working at his uncle’s shop during the day.
Two of Fearnley’s pictures were shown at the Drawing School’s first exhibition, held in 1820. His paintings hung alongside works by many of the most prominent names in Norwegian art history. J. C. Dahl was already well on his way to fame, and Johannes Flintoe and W. M. Carpelan showed motifs from their travels in Norway. This was the first time that the residents of the country’s capital were able to see their country depicted through the eyes of artists. Norway’s magnificent natural beauty was now “discovered”, and young Thomas Fearnley found himself in the midst of this sensational event.
Close to nature
Opportunities in Norway at that time were too limited for an ambitious aspiring artist, so Fearnley pursued his art studies abroad. After studying for several years at the Art Academy in Copenhagen, he moved to Stockholm, where he received several prestigious commissions from the Swedish royal family. But his interest in Norwegian nature never left him. In the summer of 1824 he went on his first study tour in Norway, to Telemark.
Two years later a study tour took him to western Norway. At Ytre Kroken in Luster he met J. C. Dahl, who by then had become a professor in Dresden. Fearnley drew great inspiration from his encounter with Dahl and the trips they took together in the area. His drawings and oil studies grew freer and acquired a more realistic style. Dahl, too, regarded Fearnley’s nature studies as eliciting his true inner self: “For here he presented his own self, as he was and as he felt the presence of nature, when it was upon him.” (Dahl, in “Thomas Fearnley 1802–1842” by Andreas Aubert in Nordisk tidskrift för vetenskap, konst och industri [Nordic Journal of Science, Art and Industry], Stockholm, 1903).
The European and the glacier
Fearnley was a sociable man, and had a wide circle of colleagues, friends and supporters in the international art community. In the course of his short life he travelled constantly, and was for this reason called “the European” of the Norwegian art world.
Together with a few of his fellow artists, Fearnley walked from Munich over the Alps to Italy in 1832. It was a cold and wet trip. One of the friends accompanying him, Danish painter Wilhelm Bendz, contracted pneumonia and died shortly after they arrived in Italy.
Fearnley spent over two years in Italy. His drawings and oil studies show us how he became a master at rendering light and shadow. On his way home he discovered what would become one of his main motifs: the Upper Grindelwald Glacier in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. At that time the glacier descended all the way down to the village, and was easily accessible to tourists. As a result of climate change, the glacier has retreated at a rapid pace. Today we can only see a remnant of the mighty ice masses that Fearnley would have witnessed.
A friend in need
Thomas Fearnley is referred to as having a good disposition and a big heart. “He was an ally to share a bottle of wine with; he was a friend in need”, wrote his close friend Henrik Wergeland. He was a hard worker, and had a promising career ahead of him when he died of typhoid fever in January 1842. He left behind a young widow and a nine-month-old son.
Thanks to his family, Fearnley’s drawings and studies were preserved for future generations. The National Museum’s collection comprises 65 paintings, over 800 drawings and 27 etchings.