Johann Nepomuk Levy was born on March 25, 1859, in Strasswalchen, Austria. Later in his life he would become the artist John Fery and earn himself a well-deserved place in the history of American art. Known for his dramatic panoramas of the wild and greatly unknown American West, Fery’s work captures a time and feeling of excitement and exploration of the unknown as the West began to open up. In addition to contributing to the panoramic art movement of his time, many of his works can also be considered historical documentation of subjects such as Indian villages and the Seattle coastline.
Details of his early life in Austria are varied, including the nature of his artistic training. Some sources claim that his father encouraged his artistic talents at an early age and enrolled him at the Vienna Academy of Art, while others say he was self-taught. In the early 1880s, Fery married a Swiss woman by the name of Mary Rose Kraemer, and in 1886 the couple had a daughter and immigrated to the United States. Upon arrival, Johann legally changed his name to John Fery to better assimilate.
It is possible that the couple first moved to Ohio where their second daughter was born in 1886, but it has also been reported that the family lived in upstate New York and New Jersey around this time as well. Fery returned to Europe for the first time in 1890 and realized Europe’s great interest in the American West. The artist visited his home continent twice more to organize two hunting expeditions to the West for wealthy European sportsmen in 1893 and 1895, traveling to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, and Wyoming.
By the late nineteenth-century there was a great demand for paintings of the newly opened “Wild West” in the dramatic, panoramic style of the Hudson River School, including the works of well-known artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. In the late 1890s, Fery and his family moved to Jackson Lake, Wyoming where he painted the area at least 35 times. This relocation marked the beginning of his career as an artist specializing in the panoramic style. Using broad strokes and a color palate that changed from somber, dark hues of the German style to bright hues of an American Impressionistic style towards the end of his career, his paintings glorified the wild side of nature and often included elk, horses, bears and other wildlife. Human presence was rarely represented. In 1903, Fery moved to Milwaukee and established a studio in a building with many other German and Austrian artists where he marketed his work depicting Wyoming and other places in the West. It was at this time that his career really took off when his paintings where noticed by the Hill family, owners of the Great Northern Railway- the only route connecting the Midwest (from St. Paul) to Seattle.
James Hill hired Fery for the railway’s “See America First” campaign. The artist was commissioned to paint dramatic, wild, and mountainous landscapes depicting various scenic stops along the Great Northern Railway route to Seattle, including the company’s various hotels and lodges along the way. His paintings, averaging a minimum 10x12 feet, ultimately served as advertisements for prospective travelers, displayed in railroad stations across the country. Fery set up a new studio in St. Paul and produced 347 major works for the Great Northern Railway. He produced these paintings during the winters after spending summers sketching in the West. The majority of his works depicted Glacier National Park in Wyoming, the Tetons, and the Rockies.
When his campaign with the Great Northern Railway ended, Fery did some freelance work in Salt Lake City where his paintings were sold by local dealers, then moved back to Milwaukee and painted various scenes of Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest. Finally he settled with his family in Washington State on Orcas Island. Unfortunately, in 1929, his cabin burned down and a great number of his paintings and sketches were destroyed. Only an estimated 150 paintings still exist today, making them a coveted and the desirable piece of American history.
Written and researched by Alexandra Nilles.
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