Mother and Child by the Sea by Johan Christian Dahl

Mother and Child by the Sea by Johan Christian Dahl (1840)

You would be forgiven for thinking today’s painting is by Caspar David Friedrich as it has all the hallmarks of similar paintings by the German Romantic painter.  My Daily Art Display today is in fact a painting by Johan Christian Dahl, who was the leading Norwegian landscape painter of his time.  The work is entitled Mother and Child by the Sea which he completed in 1840.

Dahl was born in Bergen Norway in 1788, son of a fisherman.  He studied art at school and thanks to a group of wealthy Bergen citizens who sponsored him and gave him funds, he was able to travel to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, where, at the age of twenty-three, he enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Seven years later, in 1818, Dahl left Copenhagen for a European tour of the major art centres in Germany and Italy.  He never forgot his homeland and made many journeys back to Norway where he made many sketches of the country’s rugged landscape.  In 1824 he became professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.  Whilst living in Dresden he became part of a celebrated artistic circle which included Casper David Friedrich and with these fellow artists shaped the era of German Romantic painting which began in the second half of the 18th century.  Friedrich and Dahl when they first met immediately hit it off and they became great friends.  Friedrich helped Dahl find lodgings and buy canvas and paint.  When Dahl moved into the house where Friedrich lived, they became even closer friends. They were godfathers to each other’s children, they sent paintings together to the various exhibitions, and when one had visitors, these were taken to see the works of the other. The two friends were regarded as the typical pair of complementary artists, Friedrich was the idealist painter and Dahl the naturalist painter, but both truly committed to Romanticism. They were considered a pair to such an extent that they were always mentioned together in the exhibition reviews and people tended to order companion pieces from them.  They had differing artistic techniques.   Dahl would start his subject directly on to canvas, composed from the various drawings and studies scattered around him, at great speed and with his studio full of visitors. Friedrich began his painting only after days of meditation when the entire scene stood clearly before his inner eye. He then worked in successive thin glazes, in order to have the whole composition visible at every stage in the process. Friedrich preferred an empty studio where nothing distracted his contemplation, and when he was painting the sky in his landscapes, nobody dared to speak to him.

Johan Dahl had quite a sad personal life.  He first married in 1820 and they had four children but sadly his wife, Emilie, died giving birth to their son, Siegwald in 1827.  In 1829 his son Alfred and daughter Marie died of scarlet fever.  He remarried in January 1830 to one of his art students, Amalie von Basserwitz, but she too died in childbirth that December.  This left Dahl, with the help of his housekeeper, to bring up his two children from his first marriage, Siegwald and Caroline.   Dahl, himself, died in Dresden in 1857, aged 69.  Over seventy years later his remains where brought back to his Norwegian homeland and buried in the cemetery of St Jacob’s church in Bergen.

The painting today was Dahl’s second version of the scene and was completed the same year as his great friend Casper David Friedrich died and in some way may have been Dahl’s tribute to the German Romantic artist   It depicts a woman with her child standing on a rocky coastal landscape pointing to a boat out at sea.  The scene is illuminated by moonlight.  Dahl, like many artists during the Romantic period, painted a number of pictures with moonlight over water and of this setting he once wrote:

“…The special thing I have succeeded in doing in this piece is the faint light cast by the moon over all the scenery, a peace that is spread all over the area, which makes it solemn and beautiful. The light in the clouds, the moon, the reflections in the water, in short a certain dimness that predominates it, if I dare say it, which must both be and not be, and shows that it is night…”

The mother and child await the arrival of the boat and the homecoming of the child’s father, one of the two figures we can just make out on the deck of the craft, which moves towards them across the glassy calm sea.  It is a tranquil night.  The moon peeks through an opening of the clouds, lighting up a patch of the otherwise dark sea causing a pearlescent shimmer over the water.  There is an air of optimism about this painting as the moon lights up the scene and we see the excitement of the child at his father’s safe return.  There is a magical feel to this work of art.