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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Johann Christian Dahl

Megalith Grave near Vordingborg in Winter, 1824-25, Johann Christian Dahl
Johann Christian Dahl,
Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein
One of the most difficult tasks a truly successful artist may conquer is not that of mastering perspective, or color and composition, or even attaining a good portrait likeness, but that of standing apart from the crowd. All the others can be taught. They can be acquired through simple learning and practice. The best way to learn to paint is to paint a lot. However the art of rising above one's peers is so ephemeral a task as to befuddle even the most proficient practitioner pursuing the painting profession. Moreover it's an endeavor that needs be accomplished at least three or four times during an artist's lifetime in that as he or she rises from a locally known painter to become regionally known, then nationally known, ultimately even internationally known, one might almost say such an effort is actually continuous. Only during the final years of an artist's life can it be said that its safe to "rest on one's laurels."
Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight, 1846, Johann Christian Dahl.
Of course few artists have the ambition to rise to international fame and fortune even if they do have the talent and persistence needed to try. The Norwegian landscape artist Johann Christian Dahl had both, though in hailing from what was, in 1788 when he was born, the small fishing village of Bergen on the southwestern coast of Norway, he certainly didn't have much going for him. His father was a simple fisherman. Young Dahl always regretted his lowly birth and backwater childhood even as a mentor at the Bergen Cathedral took him in tow, seeing a likely prospect for the priesthood. However in seeing the boy's drawing talent, he recognized the even more likely prospect of his becoming an artist. He arranged for Dahl to begin studying art with a local teacher starting in 1803 when the boy was fifteen. There he remained for the next six years, more of an employee than a student, exploited for profit in painting theatrical sets, portraits, and local scenes of Bergen, rather than actually learning a trade.
Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway, 1832, Johann Christian Dahl.
Around 1809, another artist began showing Dahl books on art and even took up a collection among his friends and fellow artist to allow Dahl to attend the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. There Dahl decided he wanted to be a landscape painter in the Dutch tradition of von Ruisdael and Caesar van Everdingen (who was actually more of a history painter). While still in his twenties, Christian Dahl had moved from the first level to the second. He was becoming known on a regional level. Of course, in choosing to paint landscapes, he was making the next move up the ladder ever so much more difficult. In a mountainous region like Norway and surrounding countries, with their inspiring natural vistas, landscape painters were, as we Americans might tritely say today, "a dime a dozen."
Landscape at Kaupanger with Stave Church, 1847, Johann Christian Dahl

Forest Fire Glows, 1846, Johann Dahl
However, Johann Dahl was more than just a particularly talented technician with a brush. More than simply studying art, Dahl studied nature. He studied why a certain site was beautiful, when it was most beautiful, and only then, how to capture that beauty on canvas. That was the first attribute setting him apart from virtually all other Norwegian landscape painters. Beyond that, there was the task of rising above his subject matter, lifting his landscapes from the lowest level of artistic endeavor to a plane equal to that of portraiture, religious, and history painting. Landscape painters have long attempted to couch their efforts in high-flown allegorical contexts. Some, such as Dahl's friend, Casper David Friedrich were successful in doing so. Most, simply seemed pretentious. Dahl avoided this trap by not titling his landscapes with philosophical drapery but nonetheless employing the visual elements in such a way as to immediately call to mind deeper truths.

Pedersburg, 1832, Johann Christian, Dahl
Landscape paintings were, then as now, commercial commodities, chosen by buyers more for their size, shape, and colors than for their content, which was often based upon repetitious fantasies, ease of production, and past popularity. Dahl very often inserted a human or animal presence into his landscape (above), never allowing them to become simple backdrops, but nonetheless providing a familiar center of interest for the viewer to initially latch onto before admiring the natural beauty Dahl had captured. Dahl was not above sometimes painting more than one (often virtually identical) version of the same scene. There are at least two somewhat similar versions of his Megalith Grave near Vordingborg in Winter (top) dating from 1823-24. Around 1815, Dahl moved to Dresden, Germany, where he first met Friedrich and had his first show, which was a spectacular success. He entered thirteen landscapes. All thirteen were purchased by Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, who later invited Dahl to join him in Naples. Dahl first married his fiancée then left her the next day for Italy. There Dahl spent the next ten months painting area sites and sights, enjoying the new and different Mediterranean light (I've been there, but didn't notice any difference in the light).

Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1823, Johann Christian Dahl
--one of many (eruptions and paintings).
Scene of the Villa Malta, 1821,
Johann Christian Dahl
After a short return to Dresden to visit his wife, Dahl returned to Italy, (Rome, this time). He was fortunate to be in the Rome/Naples area in 1821 (and several times thereafter) when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Once more, he painted several slightly different versions, ranging from dangerously close to comfortably distant. Though Dahl had traveled broadly throughout northern Europe, his trips to Italy engendered within him a deeper appreciation of what he'd left behind. Homesick, in 1826 Dahl returned to Dresden from Rome, never more to roam. With him, he brought back some five years worth of Italian landscapes, which were highly valued for their supposed "romantic" qualities. He became something of a national celebrity, easily the most popular and successful landscape painter in Norway (even though he lived in Dresden).

Stalheim,1842, Johann Christian Dahl
During the ensuing years, Dahl's wife died giving birth to their fourth child. Later two of his children died of scarlet fever. Following his wife's death, Dahl married one of his students, Amalie von Bassewitz, who also died giving birth less than a year later. Few men could take such a sustained string of tragedies without suffering deep pain, sadness, and depression. For several years Dahl was unable to paint. However, return trips to his native Norway during the latter five or six years of his life were sufficient to revive his love of nature and his desire to preserve it on canvas. Dahl died at his home in Dresden following a short illness in 1857. He was sixty-nine, a lonely, tragic, embittered man. His remains were taken back to Bergen and buried in a cemetery not far from a bronze statue of him erected outside the Vestlandske kunstindustrimuseum. History has labeled Johann Christian Dahl a "Romantic Landscape" painter. I prefer to think of him as a man who dared to climb to the top of his profession despite his lowly birth, the lowly landscapes, and his tragic personal life.

View of Pillnitz Castle, 1823, Johan Christian Dahl.


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