In The Grindelwaldgletscher, the highlight of Thomas Fearnley’s Swiss landscape paintings, the viewer gazes up from the grassy knoll in the foreground toward the bottom of a valley filled by a glacier. The majestic composition is based on Fearnley’s on-site observations. A sketch in pencil from August 1835 reveals a barren landscape in front of the glacier. The large trees, which form such an essential part of the picture’s overall composition, stem from studies of trees Fearnley made a week later in Scheideck.
Fearnley has made the landscape more overpowering than in the original on-site drawing. The mountainsides are steeper and have been accentuated through light and shadow. The contrast to the everlasting ice and snow of the desolate valley is heightened by the lush vegetation in the foreground, where sheep graze under a shepherd’s supervision. Fearnley emphasizes the wild, inaccessible aspects of nature by letting a bird of prey glide above the glacier, even as he playfully includes a visual, English-based pun on his name by adding a tuft of fern next to his signature.
Scholars have noted how the composition and the balancing of the various landscape elements evoke the Düsseldorf painter Johann Wilhelm Schirmer (1807–63), whom Fearnley met during his sojourn in Switzerland. In romanticism, a pronounced contrast between warm and cold tones, as seen here, was also perceived as symbolizing the confrontation between life and death.
Before the painting was completed, it was shown at the Paris Salon in 1836. Along with two paintings by J. C. Dahl, this painting and Fearnley’s The Labro Falls at Kongsberg (1837) were the first paintings by Norwegians artists to be acquired by the National Gallery.
Text: Frode Haverkamp
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0