- Billedkunstner, Painter
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.
- Henning Alsvik, Thomas Fearnleys tegninger: fra reiser ute og hjemme 1824–1840 [Thomas Fearnley’s Drawings: From Travels at Home and Abroad 1824–1840], Sigurd Willoch, Ed. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1952.
- Andreas Aubert, ”Thomas Fearnley 1802–1842” in Nordisk tidskrift för vetenskap, konst och industri [Nordic Journal of Science, Art and Industry], Stockholm, 1903.
- Ann Summer and Greg Smith, Eds. In front of nature: The European landscapes of Thomas Fearnley. Birmingham: The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 2012.
- Henrik Wergeland, “Med Thomas Fearnleys Portræt (1845)” [“With Thomas Fearnley’s Portrait (1845)”], in Udvalgte Skrifter af Henrik Wergeland [Selected Works by Henrik Wergeland]. Copenhagen: Gad, 1871.
- Sigurd Willoch, Maleren Thomas Fearnley [The Painter Thomas Fearnley]. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1932.
- Sigurd Willoch, “Thomas Fearnley” in Norsk kunstnerleksikon [Encyclopedia of Norwegian Artists]. https://nkl.snl.no/Thomas_Fearnley
- Sigurd Willoch in Thomas Fearnley 1802–1842. Modum: Blaafarveværket, 1986.
- Øystein Ustvedt, Ed., Thomas Fearnley: Européeren: Familiens hyllest [Thomas Fearnley: The European: The Family’s Tribute]. Oslo: Astrup Fearnley Museet, 1995.
A story passed down verbally gives an amusing picture of how the encounter might have taken place: On a rainy day, Dahl arrived, unseen, at Ytre Kroken in Luster, and saw a young artist (Fearnley) sitting in the shelter of a log storage cabin, painting the landscape in front of him. When the professor saw that he was painting a picture of a sunny day, he started to scold the young man. You can’t paint a sunny day when the rain is pouring down! Fearnley, who had no idea who the visitor was, defended himself, and scolded him in return. Later they were introduced to each other formally, and Fearnley was very embarrassed when he realised whom he had been arguing with. A few days later he returned with a study that impressed Dahl so much that Dahl invited Fearnley to study under him in Dresden.
Source: translation of Andreas Aubert, Professor Dahl: et stykke av aarhundredets kunst- og kulturhistorie [Professor Dahl: A Part of the Century’s Art and Cultural History]. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1893, 226.