Old Birch Tree at the Sognefjord
- Artist: Thomas Fearnley
- Creation date: 1839
- Object type: Painting
In former times, the enormous birch at Slinde Farm in the innermost part of the Sognefjord was considered to be on hallowed ground. The tree’s significance as a living artefact, its location on an ancient barrow, and the majestic nature surrounding it made it a perfect motif for Norwegian romantic painters in the nineteenth century. The tree itself was uprooted by a powerful storm in 1874, but the memory of the tree lives on.
Both Johannes Flintoe and Johan Christian Dahl had painted the tree before Thomas Fearnley, but Fearnley’s version is perhaps the most atmospheric depiction and has remained one of the principal works of Norwegian national romanticism. In the summer of 1838, Fearnley had once again visited Dresden to meet Dahl. Certain characteristics of Old Birch Tree at the Sognefjord, which he painted the following year, suggest that during this visit he received inspiration from Dahl’s German colleague and friend Caspar David Friedrich. The painting features intense, glowing colours that are not as prominent in Fearnley’s earlier works but that are in fact a hallmark of Friedrich’s art. Another commonality with Friedrich’s paintings is the two small figures who are placed with their backs turned to the viewer, surveying the landscape in quiet contemplation.
In 1844, the Norwegian author Johan Sebastian Welhaven wrote a poem about this ancient birch rising from the burial mound:
The Sanctified Tree
On the Sognefjord, on Slindre Farm,
Is where one finds the proudest birch.
Atop Hydnes Barrow, over the giant’s legs,
It stretches out its hearty branches,
Greeted with reverence and awe
As it rises toward the sky in age-old splendour.
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.