Johann Jakob Frey grew up in an environment prone to art, receiving the first painting lessons from his father Samuel (1785-1836) who was a painter and engraver.
He began travelling at a young age and Paris became his first destination: the desire to learn brought him to spend entire days at the galleries of the Louvre, where he would exercise in copying paintings of Flemish landscapes of the XVI and XVII century.
He returned to Basel in 1834 for a brief stay before returning to Munich where he discovered Carl Rottmann’s art (1797-1850), whose artistic language influence Frey’s approach to landscape art.He reached Rome in 1836, a date which appears on many of his Italian sketches and which thus anticipates his presumed arrival to Italy by two years: 1838, traceable in many of his critic studies.
His first studio was located in the Austrian Academy at the Palazzo Venezia; he travelled in the premises of Rome for then arriving to Naples where he met the painters of the ‘Scuola di Posillipo’ from whom he definitely was influenced, for then travelling to Sicily.
His atelier was visited by numerous intellectuals such as the archeologist Richard Lepsius (1810-1884), who became friends with the Swiss painter, and who considered him the right person to follow him in his expedition sponsored by the Prussian government to Egypt and Ethiopia. It was in 1842 that Frey began this expedition but it did not last for more than a year, given his deteriorating health condition, forcing his return in august 1843.
After a stop in Athens which lasted one month, the Swiss artist returned to Rome in Via Capo le Case 92. In his studio, he began working immediately on the new Oriental themes he had been studying throughout his African experience. His creations were peremptorily acclaimed by the audience, and due to the political instability of Rome in 1848, he resumed his travels around Europe: in France, England, Switzerland and Spain, where he painted several views of the Sierra Nevada, Granada and Seville.
Frey became a point of reference for many artists, especially the German ones who arrived in Rome, who could visit him in the studio he established in 1858 at the prestigious Hotel de Russie, at the beginning of Via del Babuino, towards Piazza del Popolo. During those years, he continued travelling around the Roman countryside along with his fellow Ferdinand Gregorovius (1821-1891), a German historian and literate who described his walks with his fellow painter around the countryside, in many of his writings.
In 1865, Frey died at the apex of his career in his ‘vineyard’ in Frascati. His tomb, decorated with Egyptian motives, is at the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Testaccio in Rome.