Johann Nepomuk Levy–John Fery’s name before he Americanized it–was born in Strasswalchen, Austria on March 25, 1859 to Hungarians Jahn and Mary Levy. Jahn was temporarily working for the railroad but soon returned to his wife’s prosperous family farm near Pressburg, Hungary. Johann’s idyllic childhood filled with painting, hunting, and hiking came to an end in his teenage years when both parents died unexpectedly. An inheritance allowed him to attend the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts where he studied many art styles including Realism, Romanticism, and Impressionism. Further formal training was obtained at the prestigious Munich Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Dusseldorf Academy.
As did many other European artists, Johann immigrated to the United States to seek the opportunities that the “American Dream” promised. A short time after his arrival in 1883, the young artist changed his name to John Fery. He soon found work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “the German Athens,” where a number of German immigrant artists were hired to work on giant panorama paintings. Fery along with others was assigned to paint the landscape for the cyclorama Battle of Missionary Ridge (1883-1884). Many of these works were hundreds of feet long and weighed several tons. They traveled by train to cities all over the country captivating adoring audiences.
With a new name and career, Fery headed back to Europe in 1884 to marry Parisian Mary Rose Kraemer (1862-1930). After living near Lake Ammersee outside Munich where their first child, daughter Fiametta was born, the couple headed back to the United States and explored the Hudson River Valley in eastern New York. This gave him an opportunity to study the works of Bierstadt, Hill, and Moran, among others.
In 1890 they relocated to booming Duluth, Minnesota to work on a mural for the Fitger Brewing Company. It was there that Louis Hill first saw Fery’s work. But Fery dreamed of exploring the Rockies, and in 1891 he rode the Northern Pacific Railway to Yellowstone National Park and eventually all the way to Seattle. During the trip, he sketched, painted, and photographed the awe inspiring beauty of the American West. However, two years later a depression hit America which made the prospects for living off an artist’s income impossible. Showing “Yankee ingenuity,” in 1893 and 1895 Fery morphed into a hunting guide and toured groups of wealthy Europeans throughout the West.
Louis Hill noted from afar the rising fame of Fery who was considered an outstanding landscape artist with the physicality to hike, climb, and camp in formidable terrain. As the economy improved, Fery found steady work back in Milwaukee, a setting where the family felt most comfortable.
Through the tireless efforts of George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938) and others, The “Alps of North America” in northwestern Montana was designated as Glacier National Park in 1910. Louis W. Hill became obsessed with developing the park into a premiere world destination, which could be conveniently accessed by his Great Northern Railway. Fery was given the daunting task of producing hundreds of large paintings from 1910 to 1913 that could be distributed throughout America and around the world to attract tourists to the park. His work found its way to the walls of train depots, hotels, ships, travel agencies, colleges, and other institutions. It seemed Fery’s art was everywhere.
In addition, Fery’s paintings were found in the chalets and lodges that the Great Northern built mainly between 1910 and 1915. Although he was paid less than forty dollars a painting, Fery was almost maniacal in his work. He created a new painting every few days. Early on in their time in Glacier, the Fery family was neighbors of Charlie and Nancy Russell (1878-1940) who had a summer retreat, Bull Head Lodge, on Lake McDonald in western Glacier National Park. A number of Fery paintings survive that were painted near Bull Head Lodge.
Moving on, in 1915 John Fery traveled to San Francisco to take in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition where artist’s works from all over the world–including a number of Fery’s Glacier Park oils–were on display. Louis Hill who had a vacation home south of the Bay area helped Fery obtain commissions from the Southern Pacific Railway. The work took him to Yosemite National Park; Lake Tahoe; Central and Southern California; and Arizona.
In 1916 Fery headed to Portland, Oregon where he completed a large mural for Charles “Sam” Jackson (1860-1924), owner of the Oregon Journal, in the Jackson Tower building in downtown Portland. Fery also painted landscapes of the Oregon Coast, Columbia River, and Cascade Mountains.
Later in 1916 John and Mary Fery moved to Spokane to be closer to family since both son Carl and daughter Lucienne were living in eastern Washington State. Frequent trips were made to northern and southern Idaho to paint the magnificent lakes and mountains of the area. In time, Lucienne moved with her husband to Salt Lake City, and eventually they were followed there by her parents. John Fery had his art displayed in several local art stores while he ventured to the Southern Utah canyon country of Zion and Bryce to capture their magnificence on canvas.
By 1923 the Ferys were living back in Milwaukee. John would soon turn sixty-five years old.
In 1925 Louis Hill once again called on his favorite landscape artist to return to Glacier. Hill went into high gear promoting the park with an array of artists including Oliver Grover (1861-1927), Elsa Jemne (1888-1974), Kathryn Leighton (1875-1952), Adolph Heinze (1887-1958), Joe Scheuerle (1873-1948), and Winold Reiss (1888-1953).
Fery’s agreement with the Great Northern Railway was similar to the original one way back in 1910. He would be paid $200 every month to produce four to six canvases. Especially important to Hill was sending Fery to Wateron Lakes National Park in Canada, just north of Glacier, to paint the area around the newly constructed Princes of Wales Hotel (1927).
In 1929 the Ferys moved to Orcas Island, Washington northwest of Seattle to be closer to family. John was working out of a studio next to the home of his daughter Fiametta and her husband, F. Carl Lange, when a fire destroyed the studio and all its contents. Many of his paintings that he was finishing for the Great Northern were destroyed, much to the consternation of the railway.
The stock market crash and subsequent Depression made Fery’s work prospects grim. To make matters worse, Louis Hill stepped down as chairman of the board of the Great Northern. The artist’s biggest supporter was now gone.
From 1925 to 1930, Fery completed approximately seventy-five paintings for the railway. It would be his last major commission. John kept a studio in Everett, Washington until his death on September 10, 1934.
John Fery’s art has been featured in many exhibitions and catalogs over the years including: Milwaukee Public Library (1974); Boise Art Gallery (1975); the Iron Horse exhibition and catalog at the Minnesota Museum of Art (1976); The Burlington Northern Collection catalog (1982); Mountain Majesty: The Art of John Fery catalog and exhibition sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. William P. Healey, and Mr. and Mrs. John B. Fery held at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming (1998), C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Montana (1998), and Boise Art Museum, Idaho (1999); John Fery: Artist of the Rockies, catalog and exhibition at the Hockaday Museum in Kalispell (2010); and Painting the Wilderness: John Fery and Contemporaries exhibition at the Wildling Museum in Solvang, California near Santa Barbara (2014), among others.
Larry Len Peterson, author of John Fery: Artist of Glacier National Park & The American West
From the archives of askART.com