In the first article of these three examining the Wanderer theme, including wayfarers and pilgrims, in paintings, I looked at its origins from Hieronymus Bosch, its development in Romantic landscapes, and its first great exponents, Caspar David Friedrich and his pupil Carl Gustav Carus. This article looks at its ultimate development in the paintings of the Norwegian Thomas Fearnley.
Rudelsburg Castle, which Carl Gustav Carus painted in 1825, is a typical Romantic/Gothic location on the River Saale, in Saxony, central Germany. In the 19th century, its ruins became a popular focal point for walkers, and grapevines were planted in its grounds. Carus’ faceless wanderer has made his way here, this time in the company of his dog. He sits looking into the view, his back to the viewer as a Rückenfigur.
It was Caspar David Friedrich who tried other variations. Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (c 1827) is a revision of Two Men Contemplating the Moon from about 1819-20, in which a man and a woman, dressed in clothes of a century before, both shown as Rückenfigur, are looking at the moon. Their heads are covered, the woman’s by a shawl, the man’s by a tricorn hat.
Just three years later, Thomas Fearnley started to paint wanderers. He came from an English merchant family, his grandfather having emigrated to Norway from Yorkshire. He was accustomed to travel, and during the 1830s wandered around Europe, crossing the Alps at least twice. It was this incessant travel which brought Fearnley’s premature demise, when he caught typhus and died at the age of only thirty-nine.
Fearnley was one of the most brilliant exponents of plein air painting in oils at the time when Camille Corot was also painting in the Roman Campagna. His sketches made in front of the motif and subsequent finished paintings are rich in their use of figures, among them an artist, often seen sitting at an easel painting the view depicted in the painting: Fearnley’s graphical signature.
By all accounts, Fearnley himself was a portly man, who would have looked quite different to the figures which keep appearing in his paintings. It seems reasonable to conclude that this traveller, viewer, and artist was Fearnley’s artistic alter ego, his version of the Rückenfigur so loved by Friedrich and Carus.
Fearnley’s finely detailed landscapes use the wanderer to draw the viewer in and make them marvel at seeing what they could not have seen in reality. It’s an effective psychological ploy which adds interest to a view, and enriches the dialogue between the artist and viewer. Fearnley’s 1830 Landscape with a Wanderer (above) is a good example, with its detail shown below.
A couple of times, Fearnley’s painter assumes great importance, as in The Painter and the Boy (c 1834) above. This view of the Italian coast was most probably painted en plein air over a period of a few days, the figures being added late during that process. The artist with his back to the viewer doesn’t appear bulky enough to be Fearnley, cannot be identified as any real painter, and must be presumed to be this alter ego.
If the Painter and the Boy themselves are part of the motif, Fearnley still adorns the ground with accessories. The detail below shows well over a dozen, each carefully worked during the limited time available for this painting.
We get even better insight into Fearnley’s use of figures when comparing one of his plein air sketches with its matching finished work.
During his travels in about 1837, Fearnley visited the Grindelwald Glacier, and produced this superb plein air oil sketch. In addition to the ghostly-white eagle soaring above the ice, he included more than half a dozen figures, shown in the detail below.
Prominent among the nearer group is a walker, wearing a large black hat. Even the line of people far back against the foot of the glacier has been painted in some detail, though, with the leader holding a staff, and one of them mounted on a pony or similar.
A year or so later, Fearnley painted this large finished version. The method he used to transfer from his original sketch has reversed the sides of the image, but many details have been retained. The eagle still soars, the trees are very similar, but the figures have changed completely.
On the now lush pastures in front of the massive wall of ice, Fearnley has found a flock of sheep instead of people. In the distance, with his back towards us, is the wanderer, posing as shepherd but looking away from the viewer, towards the glacier, and wearing a distinctive black hat.
Although Thomas Fearnley’s paintings are largely forgotten today, the wanderer got about a bit more in the later nineteenth century, after Fearnley’s tragically early death.