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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ferdinand von Wright

The Surprise, 1880, Ferdinand von Wright.
When we Americans think of ornithologist artists the first, and unfortunately, the last name that comes to mind is John James Audubon. Okay, we Americans don't think of ornithologists very often, either those who paint them or simply watch them. Of course, those who paint them also have be birdwatchers, watching them very closely, silently, and quickly in order to sketch them, inasmuch as simply the "click" of a camera lens is enough to sometimes frighten these beautiful, but "flighty" creatures into a hasty departure. Moreover birdwatching, and I suppose, bird painting as well, have a sort of "effete" connotation many artists and photographers are reluctant to assume. That being the case, there are not very many birdwatchers and even fewer bird painters. Quite likely, any artists with the skills needed to paint our fine feathered friends are more likely to choose an area of art that pays better. Let's face it, not many art collectors buy bird paintings (or even prints).
The Fighting Capercaillies, 1886, Ferdinand von Wright
The Owl Strikes Hare,
1860, Ferdinand von Wright
Though he sometimes painted human portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes, the Finnish-Swedish painter, Ferdinand von Wright is mostly remem-bered as a bird painter. One of his most famous works, The Fighting Capercaillies (above) dating from 1886, might seem to suggest neither he nor the birds he painted were quite as "effete" as we might think. The same might be said for von Wright's equally popular The Owl Strikes Hare (left) from 1860. Apparently von Wright's clients had a distinct prefer-ence for aviary violence.

Wilhelm (left), Magnus (center, and Ferdinand von Wright (right).
The story of Ferdinand von Wright is not the story of just one artist but three. Ferdinand also had two older brothers, Magnus, born in 1805 and Wilhelm born in 1810. They were also artist, though not much in the way of birdwatchers. That area of content, Ferdinand had all to himself. In any case, it's likely they taught him to paint. Born in 1822, the youngest of the three, Ferdinand and his brothers grew up on their father's estate near Kuopio, (central) Finland. Ferdinand traveled to Sweden for the first time when he was fifteen, visiting Bohuslän Province with Wilhelm, who was working as an illustrator for the zoologist Bengt Fredrik Fries. The following year, he went by himself to work for an amateur ornithologist named Count Nils Bonde, who had recently subsidized the publication of a multi-volume Svenska Fåglar (Swedish Birds), with illustrations by Magnus and Wilhelm.

The lower-left image is a self-portrait.
Still-life, 1868, Ferdinand von Wright
Ferdinand von Wright briefly studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts with the sculptor Johan Niclas Byström around 1842. He went back home in 1844, having been in Sweden for almost six years. Five years later, he went to Turku, where he took some additional lessons from Robert Wilhelm Ekman. In 1852, he and his brothers went to Helsinki, where he set up a studio and began painting more de-tailed scenes, rather than individual animals. Around 1858, Ferdinand took a trip to Dresden, where he spent two months studying with the noted animal painter Johann Siegwald Dahl. He then travelled to Orust with Wilhelm, remain-ing there for a year.

View of Lugnet, 1877, Ferdinand von Wright
Ferdinand von Wright
in his labors, 1897, Arvid Liljelund
In 1863, von Wright built a home near his family's estate, which he named "Lugnet" (above, meaning serenity or tranquility in Swedish). Von Wright lived there for the next twenty years. In the early 1870s, he had several strokes and was often bedridden. Nonetheless, von Wright continued to paint as much as possible. Even-tually, he had to move out of the main part of his home and occupy two smaller guest rooms upstairs. He made his last trip in 1881, to Orust, visiting Wilhelm, who was also ill. The artist's work became more commer-cial from that point on. In 1886, he produced his best-known work The Fighting Capercaillies. He also contributed articles to various ornithological journals. Sometime later, von Wright received a state artists' pension. Many former students came to visit and, in the late 1890s, including another bird painter, Matti Karppanen, who stayed on to be his pupil and assistant. Slowly, Ferdinand became more withdrawn. He died in 1906 at the age of eighty-four.

Rooster and Hens, 1871, Ferdinand von Wright

Winter Landscape, Ferdinand von Wright.
During winter in Finland there aren't many
birds to paint.


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