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Your position: Home > Styles by Artists > Romanticism-(1790-1880) > Johan Christian Dahl

Painting by Jacob van Ruisdael in the collection of Adam Gottlob Moltke in 1812

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Item Code: TOPJohan Christian Dahl-17
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Artist Introduce:
Johan Christian Claussen Dahl (24 February 1788 - 14 October 1857), often known as J. C. Dahl or I. C. Dahl, was a Norwegian artist who is considered the first great romantic painter in Norway, the founder of the "golden age" of Norwegian painting, and one of the greatest European artists of all time.He is often described as "the father of Norwegian landscape painting" and is regarded as the first Norwegian Painter ever to reach a level of artistic accomplishment comparable to that attained by the greatest European artists of his day. He was also the first acquire genuine fame and cultural renown abroad. As one critic has put it, "J.C. Dahl occupies a central position in Norwegian artistic life of the first half of the 19th century.
Although Dahl spent much of his life outside of Norway, his love for his country is clear in the motifs he chose for his paintings and in his extraordinary efforts on behalf of Norwegian culture generally. Indeed, if one sets aside his own monumental artistic creations, his other activities on behalf of art, history, and culture would still have guaranteed him a place at the very heart of the artistic and cultural history of Norway. He was, for example, a key figure in the founding of the Norwegian National Gallery and of several other major art institutions in Norway, as well as in the preservation of Norwegian stave churches and the restoration of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and Håkonshallen in Bergen.
Early
Dahl came from a very simple background – his father was a modest fisherman in Bergen, Norway – and he would later look back at his youth with bitterness. He regretted that he never had a "real teacher" in his childhood and, despite all his spectacular success, he believed that if he had been more fortunate in his birth, he would have achieved even more than he had.
As a boy, Dahl was educated by a sympathetic mentor at the Bergen Cathedral who at first thought that this bright student would make a good priest, but then, recognizing his remarkably precocious artistic ability, arranged for him to be trained as an artist. From 1803 to 1809 Dahl studied with the painter Johan Georg Müller (no), whose workshop was the most important one in Bergen at the time. Still, Dahl looked back on his teacher as having kept him in ignorance in order to exploit him, putting him to work painting theatrical sets, portraits, and views of Bergen and its surroundings. Another mentor, Lyder Sagen, showed the aspiring artist books about art and awakened his interest in historical and patriotic subjects. It was also Sagen who took up a collection that made it possible for Dahl to go to Copenhagen in 1811 to complete his education at the academy there.
As important as Dahl's studies at the academy in Copenhagen were his experiences in the surrounding countryside and in the city's art collections. In 1812 he wrote to Sagen that the landscape artists he most wished to emulate were Ruisdahl and Everdingen, and for that reason he was studying “nature above all,” Dahl's artistic program was, then, already in place: he would become a part of the great landscape tradition, but he would also be as faithful as possible to nature itself.
Dahl's 1813 copy of it, which again impressed both Moltke and the Prince
Dahl held that a landscape painting should not just depict a specific view, but should also say something about the land's nature and character – the greatness of its past and the life and work of its current artants. The mood was often idyllic, often melancholy. When he added snow to a landscape he painted in the summer, it was not to show the light and colors of snow; it was to use snow as a symbol of death. As one critic has put it, “Unlike the radically Romantic works also appearing at the time, Dahl softens his landscape, introducing elements of genre painting by imbuing it with anecdotal materials: In the background a wisp of smoke rises from a cabin, perhaps the home of the hunter on the snow-covered field.” Thanks to Sagen's recommendations and to his own personal charm, Dahl soon gained access to the leading social circles in Copenhagen.
Dahl took part in annual art exhibitions in Copenhagen beginning in 1812, but his real breakthrough came in 1815, when he exhibited no fewer than 13 paintings. Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, who developed an early interest in Dahl's artistic genius and saw to it that his works were purchased for the royal collection, became a lifelong friend and patron of the artist.
Megalithic Tomb in Winter, 1824-25, inspired by the artist's friend, Caspar David Friedrich.
In 1816 C. W. Eckersberg returned from abroad with his paintings of Roman settings; Dahl was impressed at once, and they became good friends and exchanged pictures. Dahl's 1817 painting “Den Store Kro i Fredensborg” marked the real beginning of his lifelong production of oil paintings depicting natural subjects.
After his success in Copenhagen, Dahl realized that he wanted to live as an independent, self-supporting artist. One challenge facing him was that the academic preference of the day was for historical paintings with moral messages. Landscapes were considered the lowest kind of art, and perhaps even not as art at all, but as a purely mechanical imitation of nature. The only landscapes that could be considered art, according to the academy, were ideal, imaginary landscapes in pastoral or heroic styles. In accordance with this reigning taste, Dahl attempted to give his Danish themes a certain atmospheric character in order to lift them up above what was considered a merely commercial level. But at the same time it was his deepest wish to provide a more faithful picture of Norwegian nature than were offered by the old-fashioned, dry paintings of Haas and Lorentzen. This desire was partly motivated by homesickness and patriotism, but it was also suited to the public taste of the day for “picturesque” works.
Abroad in Dresden
Dahl traveled to Dresden in September 1818. He arrived with introductions to the city's leading citizens and to major artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, who helped him establish himself there and became his close friend. One critic has written: “Friedrich's still, meticulously executed landscapes - products of an art informed by his strict Protestant upbringing and a seeking for the divine in nature - were justifiably famous by the time he and Dahl became acquainted. We are able to see his Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819), which ranks among his greatest works, and features two "Rückfiguren," or figures seen from behind, solemnly and companionably gazing at a young sickle moon from the edge of an old forest. 'Greifswald in Moonlight' (1816–17) depicts the artist's birthplace in Pomerania, on the Baltic coast: bathed in an even, gauzy moonlight, the ancient university town assumes an almost ethereal appearance.”
Friedrich was fourteen years Dahl's elder and an established artist, but the two found in each other a shared love for nature and a shared enthusiasm for a way of depicting nature that was based on the study of nature itself rather than on the academic cliches that they both profoundly despised. One writer has put it this way:“A warm and sociable character, he soon met and became friendly with the more introverted and reclusive Friedrich, recording how they once walked together in the park of the Grösser Garten among 'many lovely trees of different kinds, and the moon looked beautiful behind the dark fir trees.'”
Together with Friedrich and Carl Gustav Carus, Dahl would become one of the Dresden painters of the period who exerted a decisive influence on German Romantic painting.
In Dresden, as in Copenhagen, Dahl traveled around the area to draw subjects that could be of use to him in larger works that would be painted later in his atelier. He wrote to Prince Christian Frederik in 1818 that “most of all I am representing nature in all its freedom and wildness.” Dahl found enough material in the Dresden area to supply motifs for his paintings, but he continued to paint imaginary landscapes with forests, mountains, and waterfalls. One such painting, completed in 1819, entitled “Norsk fjellandskap med elv” (Mountainous Norwegian landscape with river”), garnered great attention among younger artists who considered the striking natural quality of the painting a breath of fresh air on Dresden's stagnant art scene. Another monumental waterfall painting, completed the next year, was lavished with praised by the critic for Kunstblatt who said that Dahl was greater than Jacob van Ruisdael. Dahl was accepted into the Dresden academy in 1820.

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