Wilhelm von Wright, Cuckoo-Wrasse, Male, in Skandinaviens Fiskar, 1836–57, lithograph, hand coloured, 24.5 x 29.5 cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Ainur Nasretdin

Artist Brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright at the Intersection of Art and Science

Anne-Maria Pennonen, MA, Curator, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Also published in Erkki Anttonen & Anne-Maria Pennonen (eds.), The Brothers von Wright – Art, Science and Life. Ateneum Publications Vol. 99. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 11–34. Transl. Wif Stenger

Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright are integral figures in the history of science and culture in 19th-century Finland and Sweden. They are sometimes referred to as if they were one and the same person, although each had his own, distinct career. The brothers are best known for their paintings and prints of birds but, as well as scientific illustrations, the work of Magnus and Ferdinand also includes many drawings, paintings and still-lifes. In fact, the eldest of the brothers, Magnus, became one of the most prominent landscape painters in Finland in the 1840s, and the youngest, Ferdinand, in the 1850s. Ferdinand also painted several portraits. The middle brother, Wilhelm, who made his career in Sweden, concentrated on scientific illustration, mostly in graphic prints. Over the many years of depicting and observing birds, the brothers acquired a depth of scientific knowledge that justifies calling them ornithologists; Magnus in particular is generally considered to be a pioneer of Finnish ornithology.[1]

It is clear, when we look at their work, that their careers unfolded at the intersection of science and art, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. While the works are regarded stylistically as part of the tradition of Biedermeier or Romanticism, the scientific accuracy and detail of the pictures is far more important. On the other hand, the brothers’ works communicate a special affection for nature, while also representing the ideals of beauty of the time. This applies especially to Magnus and Wilhelm, who were working at a time when photography was not yet sufficiently sophisticated,[2] and when drawing and painting were the only adequate methods of documenting matters visually.

Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright’s interest in the natural world was awakened early on in their childhood home in Haminalahti, near the town of Kuopio, and their careers in art began with an amateur interest in drawing. One of their sources of inspiration were hunting trips in the company of their father, Henrik Magnus von Wright. In addition to the birds that they caught, the brothers also drew and painted watercolours of views around their home, a country manor, as well as the people they met. Apart from Haminalahti and Kuopio, the brothers worked primarily in Helsinki and its surroundings, although Magnus did make extensive field trips to South and East Finland. Their work in Sweden mostly consisted of scientific illustration undertaken in three primary locations: initially in Stockholm and on the nearby island of Mörkö, and later on the island of Orust in the Bohuslän province on the west coast.

[1] Leikola, Anto, 2011. History of Zoology in Finland 1828–1918. In Kalevi Riekkinen (ed.), The History of Learning and Science in Finland 1828–1918. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 57; Lindström, Aune, 1932. Taiteilijaveljekset von Wright. Helsinki: Otava, 3. Henrik Magnus von Wright and his wife, Maria Elisabeth (née Tuderus) had ten children, of whom Magnus (1805–68) was the eldest, Wilhelm (1810–87) second eldest, and Ferdinand (1822−1906) the youngest. The family had altogether four daughters and six sons, four of whom became ornithologists.

[2] The use of photography as a tool among Finnish artists did not become common practice until the 1880s.

Featured image: Wilhelm von Wright, Cuckoo-Wrasse, Male, illustration from Skandinaviens Fiskar, 1836–57, lithograph, hand-coloured, 24.5 x 29.5cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Ainur Nasretdin

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