The Romantic landscape image: The paintings of Johan Christian Dahl

This will be picture-focused appreciation post for Norwegian Romantic landscape painter Johan Christian Dahl. In summary of the previous posts, the Romantics looked to nature for divine revelation but also used objective observation of nature’s material processes to yield truths into nature’s divinity. An individual’s creativity, which was seen as a gift from God, provided a means to return nature materially back into the world of humans. Romantic art, thus had to balance between divine-spiritual connectivity, scientific accuracy, and personal expression. Dahl, who was a good friend of Casper David Friedrich, exemplified the midpoint between mystic expressionism and scientific enthusiasm. For me, he is the one who best represented the balance of the three aspects of Romanticism.

Dahl was a prolific painter, producing numerous landscape paintings that included many detailed study versions of repeated scenes during his lifetime. Fellow artist and friend Carl Gustav Carus criticized him as over “materialistic.”1 However, Dahl came from a humble craftsman background that kept his art simple and unpretentious. Through his paintings, he revealed nature’s greatness as well as his nostalgia for his native Norwegian landscapes while he spent most of his career in Germany. Unlike Friedrich, Dahl was not apparently concerned with the transcendental aspects of human-nature relationships, but in a down-to-earth way, Dahl related religious faith to nature, declaring “that the best writings and the most lucid religious ideas and feelings . . . [come] from statesmen, poets, speakers, and philosophers – and from those who study the natural sciences.”2 Dahl believed that art and science, along with religion, aspired people to greater truth by “awakening [their] feeling[s] for nature.”3 He stated:

…when Man transcends the raw state he feels and aspires to something nobler and more beautiful in life – and if he misses this too long, Man degenerates to refined animal gratification (and thus works against the development of the noble). Therefore the arts and sciences are not as unimportant as some people hold, but apart from religion these are of great importance for the human condition in a spiritual as well as economic sense.4

Dahl’s pictorial conventions were very picturesque. His earlier works are often suggestive of Claude Lorrain’s pastoral idealism, the lighting effects of Danish painter Jens Juel, and the mountain and waterfall themes of Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael.5 Dahl developed his own painting style as he matured as an artist but his picturesque conventions remained consistent. Most of his landscapes follow a diagonal composition that was comprised of open vistas framed by mid-ground and foreground elements such as trees and cliffs that counterbalanced each other.6 Although traditional pictorial conventions were important for Romantic artists, for Dahl, these conventions were practical rules for the perfect landscape image.

With the support of many patrons, Dahl was considered a popular artist during his lifetime. By successfully enhancing the image of his native Norwegian landscapes, Dahl is celebrated as a significant cultural figure in his home country.7 However, in the grand narrative of European art, Dahl is often only mentioned in passing as Friedrich’s Norwegian friend and is less studied than other Romantic landscape painters such as Friedrich, Turner, and Constable. Perhaps Dahl’s style is considered less of a “breakthrough” than his contemporaries. Though he does not represent the extremes of Romanticism, Dahl’s paintings demonstrate the Romantic landscape image: the search for truth in nature, and objective methodology in exploring this truth, and ways to express the subjective self.

Early works

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J.C. Dahl, View from Bastei, 1819, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Johan Christian Dahl Tutt'Art@ (38)
J.C. Dahl, Alpine Landscape, 1821, Germanishes Nationalmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
27vesuvius_in_eruption27_by_johan_christian_dahl2c_18212c_bergen_kunstmuseum
J.C. Dahl, Vesuvius in Eruption, 1821, Bergen Kunstmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Shipwrecks

Dahl,_Johan_Christian_Claussen_—_Morgen_nach_einer_Sturmnacht_—_1819
J.C. Dahl, Morning after a Stormy Night, 1819, New Pinakothek, Munich. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_Shipwreck_on_the_Coast_of_Norway_-_Google_Art_Project
J.C. Dahl, Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway, 1832, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Shipwrech, c.1832, Latvian Museum of Foreign Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tree studies

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J.C. Dahl, Study of a Birch Tree, 1826, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
ICDahl,_Bjerk_i_storm
J.C. Dahl, Birch Tree in Storm, 1849, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Winter/seasonal landscapes

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J.C. Dahl, Megalight Grave near Vordingborg in Winter, c.1824, Museum der bildenden Kunste. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
johan_christian_dahl_-_winter_at_the_sognefjord_-_google_art_project
J.C. Dahl, Winter at the Sognefjord, 1827, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Johan Christian Dahl Tutt'Art@ (17)
J.C. Dahl, Prospect of Dresden Seen from Pieschen, March Haze, 1844, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Moon studies and moonlit landscapes

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J.C. Dahl, Study of Clouds at Full Moon, 1822, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Source: The Athenaeum)
Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_View_of_Dresden_by_Moonlight_-_Google_Art_Project
J.C. Dahl, Dresden by Moonlight, 1839, Dresden New Masters Gallery. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Mother and Child by the Sea, 1840. The Barbar Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. (Source: My Daily Art Displays)
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J.C. Dahl, Copenhagen Harbour by Moonlight, 1846, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Later Norwegian landscapes

OVR371473
J.C. Dahl, Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes, 1839, Private collection. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Dahl-Stalheim
J.C. Dahl, View from Stalheim, 1842, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Johan_Christian_Claussen_Dahl_-_Utsyn_Feigumfossen_i_Lysterfjorden
J.C. Dahl, View of the Feigumfossen in Lyster Fjord, 1848, Private collection. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_Visning_av_Øylo_Farm,_Valdres
J.C. Dahl, View of Oylo Farm, Valdres, 1850. Location unknown. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Reindeer, 1850, Bergen Kunstmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Stugunøset at Filefjell, 1851, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Måbødalen, 1854, Bergen Kunstmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1. Marie Lødrup Bang, Johan Christian Dahl, 1788-1857: Life and Works, Vol. 1, (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1987), 16.
2. Johan Christian Dahl, “Dahl’s statements on Art and Nature,” in Johan Christian Dahl, 1788-1857: Life and Works, trans. by Marie Lødrup Bang, (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1978), 247.
3. Ibid, 246.
4. Ibid.
5. Marie Lødrup Bang, Johan Christian Dahl, 1788-1857: Life and Works, Vol. 1, (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1987), 29 & 34.
6. Ibid, 30.
7. Ibid, 15.

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