This essay was first published in Annals of Wyoming: The Wyoming History Journal, [1994, 66:1&2:2, 75] PO Box 4256, University Station, Laramie, WY 82071. Later published in Sommer, Mattox, McDonald and Müller (ed.), German American Painters in Wisconsin: Fifteen Biographical Essays [Stuttgart: Academic Publishing House, 1997]. Reprinted by permission of the author.
John Fery, Artist of the Rockies
by Peter C. Merrill
By the late nineteenth century, the outside world was eager for pictorial images of the American West. These at first had been supplied by explorer artists such as George Catlin or by magazine illustrators such as Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier. Then, just before and after the Civil War, came a school of panoramic landscape painters whose approach was esthetic rather than topographical or ethnological. Painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and Thomas Moran created dramatic landscape visions of the American West, while Samuel Coleman and Sanford Gifford brought the esthetic principles of the Hudson River School to this kind of painting. The mood of the time was such that it glorified the wild side of nature and took delight in the fact that the newly opened American West offered a promising field to which this kind of painting might be applied.
John Fery (1859-1934) is an artist who should be seen against the background of this tradition of panoramic western landscape painting. He is perhaps best remembered for his many large canvasses of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, but more than a dozen of his extant paintings depict scenes of Wyoming such as Jackson Lake and the Tetons.
This article seeks to present a brief overview of Fery's life and work. Unfortunately, a good deal of what has been reported about Fery is inaccurate, partly as a consequence of his own penchant toward mystification about the details of his career. This account of his life draws upon a number of neglected sources, including city directories, census reports, and various vital records in both the United States and Europe. Although every effort has been made to clarify the biographical record, a number of details remain obscure. For example, birth certificates have not been located for either of Fery's daughters, even though it is reasonably clear from other sources when and where they were born.
Fery himself was born at StraBwalchen, Austria on March 25, 1859. His birth is listed in the records of the Catholic perish at StraBwalchen, a point which needs to be emphasized, since it has been incorrectly reported that Fery was born in Hungary. It does, however, appear that he was at least partly of Hungarian ancestry. His father, the cashier Johann Fery, was born in Bohemia but may have been of Hungarian descent. Fery's mother, Maria Fery, nee Illyes, was born in Hungary. When the United States census recorded in 1900 that John Fery's birthplace was Germany it may have been intended to indicate that he was of German or German-speaking nationality. The 1910 census, however, reported his birthplace as Hungary, which perhaps meant that he claimed Hungarian nationality. Around 1920 Fery's art dealer in Salt Lake City advertised that Fery was born in Hungary, which was clearly not the case. The 1910 census also reported that he was a naturalized U.S. citizen, though no naturalization record has been found.
Fery's early life appears to have been spent partly in Pressburg (Bratislava). Presently in Slovakia, Pressburg was then part of Hungary. Claims that Fery was a student at various major European academies appear to be unfounded and ii is difficult to put aside the impression that he was a self-taught artist. There was no art school in Pressburg during Fery's lifetime and there is no record at the academies in Munich, Budapest, Düsseldorf, Karlsruhe, or Vienna that he was ever a student at any of these institutions. There is evidence that he visited both Venice and Munich, but his stay in Munich was so brief that his name does not appear in either the city directories or the police register of residents.
Sometime during the early 1880s Fery was married to his Swiss-born wife, Mary Rose Kraemer (1862-1930). In 1886 they were living near the Ammersee, a lake twenty-two miles southwest of Munich, when their oldest child, Fiammetta, was born. The family emigrated to the United States the same year. Their second child, Lucienne, was born in Ohio in 1888, though Fery is also reported to have been living in the area around Lake George in upstate New York during this period. By 1890 Fery had made his first trip to the West. Between 1891 and 1897 he appears to have made at least two trips back to Europe. In 1893 and again in 1895 he led parties of European sportsmen on extended hunting expeditions to the West. He later described one of these trips in an article, "Eine Jagd in Wyoming" (A Hunt in Wyoming), published in a European magazine. Available details about these hunting expeditions are scanty, but the group which left Europe in 1893 is said to have included eight hunters and to have visited New Mexico, Arizona, California and Oregon as well as Wyoming.
When not in Europe or leading extended hunting expeditions through the western states, Fery's base of operations during the late 1890s was at Jackson Lake, Wyoming. He considered Jackson Lake to be the most beautiful body of water he had ever seen and he is reported to have painted at least 35 pictures of it. During part of this period he rented a lodge owned by a cousin of the artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
By 1890, however, Fery was in Duluth, Minnesota, where his youngest child Carl was born on March 16. Although Fery's stay in Duluth appears to have been brief, he found time to paint mural decorations there for the tap room of the Fitger Brewery. Other murals at the brewery were painted by Fery's friend, the artist Feodor von Luerzer (1851-1913). Although von Luerzer's contribution to his project consisted of whimsical grotesques, he was, like Fery, a landscape painter primarily interested in western subjects. Like Fery, he was a native of Salzburg province, Austria who had begun painting in Europe and later painted landscapes in Idaho, Washington state, and California. Although he had received more academic training than Fery, both artists were basically self-taught professionals who were able to support themselves entirely from the sale of their paintings.
The 1902 issue of the American Art Annual reported that Fery was then living in Morristown, New Jersey. By 1903, however, he had reached Milwaukee, where his name appears in city directories until 1910. His first studio there was in the Birchard Block, where several other local artists had studios. One of these was George Peter (1859-1950), a Viennese who had come to Milwaukee in 1888 to work as a panorama painter. Another was Robert Schade (1861-1912), whose studio appears to have been next to Fery's. Schade, a former student of the Munich Academy, was a versatile artist well known in the Milwaukee art scene, where he excelled as a painter of portraits and still lifes. Peter was an accomplished figure painter but was also skilled in landscape work. After 1912 he worked as a staff artist for the Milwaukee Pubic Museum, where he mostly painted backgrounds for diorama exhibits.
Another artist that Fery must have known in Milwaukee at this time was Franz Biberstein (1850-1930), with whom he had much in common. Biberstein was a Swiss who had worked as a panorama painter in Germany and had known George Peter when both were students at the Karlsruhe Academy. Like Fery, he had begun painting mountain landscapes in Europe and had gone to the Rockies to paint after coming to America.
By 1910 Fery had moved his studio to the University Building at 111 Mason Street. This building, constructed in 1895, stood at the comer of Mason and Broadway, conveniently near the Layton Gallery and the Art institute. At the turn of the century the University Building was the home of the Milwaukee Art Students League and provided studio space for at least eleven local artists, most of them of German-American background.
In 1911 Fery moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where city directories between 1911 and 1917 indicate that he had a studio in the Stees Stock at 165 East Seventh Street. It was during this period that Fery began his long association with the Great Northern Railway, which hired him to paint lame scenic views of the West for publicity purposes. Fery spent summers in the Rockies, particularly at Glacier National Park, and spent the winter months in St. Paul producing large canvasses which were later displayed in railroad stations across the country. Fery had thus taken up a line of work similar to what Franz Biberstein was doing at the time. Biberstein also benefited from railroad patronage, spending two summers in the Canadian Rockies as the guest of the Canadian Pacific Railroad and later using his field sketches as a basis for large canvasses created during the winter in his Milwaukee studio.
Fery's patron at this time was James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway, who lived in a mansion in St. Paul, The mansion, which is maintained today as a museum, contained a picture gallery with Hill's private collection of paintings. The Great Northern Railway provided for years the only convenient access to Glacier National Park, where the railroad also operated the only hotel. By displaying large paintings of the park in railroad stations, Hill sought to publicize the place and attract business for his railroad as well as the hotel. The Great Northern connected St. Paul with Seattle, which probably accounts far the fact that Fery visited Seattle several times and eventually settled in Washington state. The 1916 St. Paul city directory reported that he was in Seattle, though he went back to his old studio in St. Paul the following year.
By 1918 Fery appears to have left St. Paul and by the following year he had settled at Salt Lake City, Utah. He painted many landscapes in Utah, particularly at Zion's Canyon in the southwestern part of the state. Fery's name appears in Salt Lake City directories from 1920 to 1923. In February, 1920 some paintings by Fery were offered for sale by the Keith O'Brian Company, a dealer in Salt Lake City. At about the same time William McConahay, another local art dealer, also advertised the sale of several Fery paintings including a view of Lake Tahoe near the California-Nevada state line.
The Milwaukee Journal in 1923 noted that Fery was back in Milwaukee, where city directories indicate that he remained until 1929. He then moved to a cabin an Orcas Island near Bellingham, Washington. A fire the same year not only destroyed his cabin but also wiped out all of Fery's possessions, including thousands of sketches and many paintings. Fery's wife died in Seattle in 1930 and Fery subsequently lived in Everett, Washington. One of his friends there was the much younger artist Ame Jensen, who painted a watercolor portrait of Fery and began an oil portrait which was never completed. Fery died at Everett General Hospital on September 10, 1934 and was buried beside his wife at the Olga-Doe Bay Cemetery on Orcas Island.
John Fery painted in broad strokes and is said to have completed most of his canvases in a short time. There are at least 150 of his paintings still in existence, most of them privately owned. About a hundred of his landscapes can be identified as to location of the scene depicted. More than half of these are Rocky Mountain landscapes, mostly pictures of Glacier National Park and of the area around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Seventeen pictures depict scenes in California and the Pacific Northwest while another fourteen depict locations in the Southwest, mainly Utah. There are eleven paintings of Wisconsin subjects, but surprisingly only two identified as Minnesota locations. This probably reflects the fact that when Fery was living in St. Paul he was absorbed with turning out paintings of Glacier National Park for the Great Northern Railway. The remaining canvasses with identifiable locations depict scenes in New York state, Michigan, and Indiana. Only two surviving works date from Fery's European period, a scene in Venice and a view of the Ammersee near Munich. Numbers of Fery paintings must be regarded as open-ended, however, as there are doubtless numerous paintings which are unreported and newly-discovered works keep appearing on the art market from time to time.
Fery is mentioned in numerous sources, particularly in works about artists of the American West. He traveled so widely and worked in so many locations that it is hard to characterize him as a regional artist, though he seems to enjoy that status in Utah. One of the best institutional collections of Fery's work is to be found in Salt Lake City at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Museum on Church History and Art, which owns nine Fery paintings. Probably the most important group of Fery paintings, however, is the impressive, well-maintained collection owned by Burlington Northern, successor to the Great Northern Railway. Quite a few of Fery's paintings are in both private end institutional collections in the Milwaukee area. The Milwaukee Public Library organized an exhibition of his work in 1974 and a similar exhibition was held at the Boise Gallery of Art in Boise, Idaho the following year. Most of Fery's paintings are quickly executed views of mountain scenery, some containing animals such as horses, bear, or elk. Human figures appear only rarely, although he reportedly had a collection of western gear. He occasionally painted architectural subjects such as the Steinmeyer estate at Okauchee Lake, Wisconsin and the Spadena house in Beverly Hills, California. Though self-taught, he was a thorough professional, fully able to support himself from his painting. He has certainly earned himself a niche in American art history, particularly among enthusiasts for Western art.
As a self-taught professional, Fery was greatly influenced by the world of academic art but not really a part of it. He does not, for example, appear to have been in the habit of joining art associations or of submitting his work to group exhibitions. In fact he was probably too busy for that, too busy filling commissions and finding new places at which to paint. Perhaps more attention should be devoted to artists such as Fery, artists who occupy a middle ground between the luminaries of their age and the group of artists destined to remain unrecognized in their own time.
1. For example, the Milwaukee artist Louis Mayer reported that Fery worked in Cleveland after his arrival in the United States in 1888. Cleveland city directories and other local records provide no support for this claim, however. Louis Mayer, "Half a Century of Art and Artists in Milwaukee," Milwaukee Sentinel, 5 April 1903, part 5, p. 10.
2. Fery's early hunting trips to the West are discussed in Michael David Zellman, American Art Analog, Volume 11 (1842-1874) (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), p. 553.
3. Hilda Stadtler, a Jackson Hole acquaintance, wrote a letter in 1956 reporting that Fery was there in 1900. Mrs. Stadtler's letter is in the collections of the Jackson Hole Museum. Considerable information about the Sargent Lodge is reported in "The Grim Mystery of Marymere Lodge," Milwaukee Journal, 6 May 1928, Sunday Magazine Section, p. 7.
4. These murals can presently be seen in the Pickwick Restaurant at 508 East Superior Street in Duluth, where they were installed in 1914.
5. Peter C. Merrill, "Franz Biberstein: Painter of the Canadian Rockies," British Columbia Historical News, vol. 25, no. 2 (Spring 1992), pp. 4-7
6. Minnesota Museum of Art, Iron Horse West: A Bicentennial Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture Selected from a Collection Acquired by Burlington Northern Over the Past Century, (St. Paul: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1976), pp. 17-23.
7. Milwaukee Pubic Library, John Fery Paintings. Exhibition Catalog (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Library, 1974).
About the Author:
Peter C. Merrill, who currently resides in Boca Raton, Fl, was born in 1930 in Evanston, IL. He was affiliated with the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL from 1968 to 1998, retiring as a full professor.
Dr. Merrill received a B.A. in Anthropology from Yale University, a M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Columbia University.
He is an expert on 19th-century German-language writers in the U.S., the German-language stage in the U.S. and German immigrant artists in the U.S.
Dr. Merrill has authored four books on related subjects and written forty-three articles and numerous book reviews and professional papers.
Image of Dr. Merrill and his biographical information courtesy of the author.
Ed.: Readers may also enjoy our earlier articles on Fery such as Mountain Majesty: The Art of John Fery (12/17/98)
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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