art history plein air paintiner Thomas Fearnley
Thomas Fearnley, "Sunset, Sorrento," 1834, oil on paper, mounted to card, 5 3/4 x 10 1/8 in.; Thaw Collection, jointly owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library & Museum, gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2009

As a plein air painter, you are part of one of the largest art movements in history. Learn about those who have helped start this movement in some way, and be inspired to continue your own journey. (View all Plein Air Heritage articles here.)

Plein Air Heritage: Thomas Fearnley (1802-1842)

Like his mentor and fellow Norwegian, Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley (1802–1842) alternated between large, composed landscapes meant for exhibition and smaller, plein air oil sketches. They parted ways, however, when it came to subject matter. While Dahl urged him to specialize in local landscapes, Fearnley preferred to travel and sketch widely throughout Europe.

With its bright, small sun at the center emphasizing the fleeting quality of the moment, and the stark lines in the clouds hinting at the oncoming darkness, “Sunset, Sorrento” illustrates the attention the artist paid to the role of light in his studies.

Upon the artist’s death at age 39, this sketch and myriad others surfaced. Although Fearnley considered them incomplete works, Dahl argued they were “better than his finished paintings, for in them he gave of his true self, as he was and as he felt when face-to-face with nature.”

If not for Dahl’s encouragement of the Norwegian National Gallery to acquire these sketches from Fearnley’s widow, the public may never have enjoyed this revealing glimpse into the personal work of one of Norway’s most important artists.

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