Thomas Fearnley owed his English name to a grandfather, a merchant who in 1753 emigrated from the port city of Hull in Yorkshire to Norway. Fearnley was a thoroughly Norwegian artist who flourished in a pan-European context: he began to study art in Christiania (present-day Oslo) in 1819, in Copenhagen from 1821 to 1823, and in Stockholm from 1823 to 1827. In 1826 he met his elder compatriot Johan Christian Dahl. Dahl was based in Dresden, and Fearnley moved there in 1829–30 to study landscape painting with him.The Painting—from Dahl to Constable to Surrey:
The present work, a life-size study of water and plants, owes a great deal to Dahl. Fearnley made studies directly from nature according to Dahl’s example and was also able to study Dahl’s plein-air sketches and landscape paintings in the latter’s studio, works such as View near Prestø
(see fig. 1 above). Yet this study of low branches and shrubs, which obscure the border between the ground and a pond or river, was painted not in Germany but England, where Fearnley visited in 1836–38. To be sure, the study reflects the teachings of Dahl, but it also betrays close attention to John Constable. The great English painter showed two pictures at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1836, which Fearnley saw. At the 1837 exhibition, for which Fearnley painted a Norwegian subject, The Labro Falls at Konsberg
(National Museum, Oslo), Constable was represented posthumously by Arundel Mill and Castle
(fig. 2), left unfinished upon his death on March 31.
By September 28, Fearnley was staying with his friend Charles Worthington at Holstein House, Weybridge, Surrey. He painted the present work there or in its vicinity, on September 23. The study gives the impression of a true slice of nature, with the majority of the plants cropped by the edges of the picture and a strong play of light on the water’s surface. The artist left the process of painting visible, prominently so, with the brown undercoating of paint, or imprimatura layer, held in reserve for dark reflections, and bright hues reflecting the sky and two large trees. In choosing his subject and the means by which he rendered it, Fearnley may well have thought back to the exuberant fusion of light, atmosphere, and water in Arundel Mill and Castle
, to its far shoreline receding diagonally toward the left, the strong vertical forms of the trees at the right, and the massing of low flora at the left.Iconography:
Fearnley’s precise manner of painting this study is evidence that he observed his subject closely and that he aimed to render it with a high degree of fidelity. This is confirmed by close scrutiny of the picture. The following botanical identifications and analysis are keyed to the diagram illustrated here (fig. 3). The painting is of a pond at the edge of woodland in a rural or pastoral setting. The Lombardy Poplars depicted in the distance (A) are a common element in rural landscapes throughout Europe, and are often present in agrarian or pastoral settings in paintings. The canopy of the adjacent woodland is reflected in the pond. There is a slight disturbance or ripple on the surface of the water. The plants are a combination of trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses that grow wild in southern England. These are not garden plants. It would not be uncommon to find these species together in a small area that was lightly maintained and perhaps occasionally disturbed by livestock. Fearnley was clearly attempting to capture a small but highly diverse segment of the landscape that is neither primeval nor manicured. Some plants are species characteristic of relatively undisturbed wet forests and wetland edges, such as the Hart's Tongue Fern (F), and others are common species of disturbed areas, such as the Curly Dock (C).
The plants are painted as they would appear together late in the summer season. It does not appear that the painter resorted to artistic license to paint an "impossible" composition depicting plants in different life stages or plants that would not be found together naturally. The plants are painted with a high degree of accuracy permitting positive identification of species for most or all of the plants. One would expect the air to be filled with the buzzing of insects and the twitter of birds, though none are visible in the painting. Nor did the artist include any floating aquatics, for example, water lilies or some of the more common wetland species such as Iris or Cattail.
The impulse to dwell in nature was characteristic of the Romantic era in which Fearnley lived. This work not only extends a tradition of faithfully recording nature whose origins can be traced to such works as Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf
(1503, Albertina, Vienna). It also anticipates by several decades the Impressionist Claude Monet’s immersive treatments of such themes, including Water Lilies
(The Met 1998.325.2
) and The Path through the Irises
(The Met 2001.202.6
Asher Miller 2020
 For the painting reproduced here as figure 1, see Marie Lødrup Bang, Johan Christian Dahl, 1788–1857: Life and Works
, Oslo, 1987, no. 140. Similar studies that Fearnley may have seen in Dahl’s Dresden studio include The Big Inn at Fredensborg
, 1817 (National Museum, Oslo, Bang 142); Study of the Lower Trunk of a Birch Tree
, 1819 (KODE Art Museums, Bergen, Bang 187); studies of agaves painted in Italy in 1820 (National Museum, Oslo, and elsewhere, Bang 228–30); Studies of Flowers from Nystuen on Fillefjell
, 1850 (KODE Art Museums, Bergen, Bang 1115); and Study of a Gnarled Branch with Some Twigs
, undated (National Museum, Oslo, Bang 1255).
 The identifications and diagram reproduced here as figure 3 were graciously provided by Daniel Atha, Director of Conservation Outreach, Center for Conservation Strategy, and Marc Hachadourian, Senior Curator of Orchid Collection, New York Botanical Garden. The following text was adapted from their email to Asher Miller of January 22, 2020 (Department of European Paintings files).