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Johann Christian Clausen Dahl

* 1788 – † 1857

Seesturm (Storm at Sea), 1843

Oil on paper (an invitation to the Flora in Dresden)

Signed and dated at bottom left: Dahl 1843

Dahl had discovered the world of seafaring while still a boy growing up in Bergen. A more serious engagement with marine motifs can be observed during his time at the Copenhagen Academy from 1811 to 1817, after which seascapes became a key part of his oeuvre. In addition to his daily forays to the docks of the Danish capital, Dahl also visited the Royal Picture Gallery, where he was able to study the maritime scenes of the great Dutch painters of the Baroque era as well as the works of Claude Joseph Vernet.1 Storms at sea and shipwrecks2 held a special fascination for Dahl, especially in the period around 1830.3 That he was still indulging this preference even in later years is evident from this painting, which proves his mastery of the genre in a very small format. As a support, the artist made use of an invitation addressed to him by the Sächsische Gesellschaft für Botanik und Gartenbau Flora, a botanical and horticultural society of which he was a member. This was not an unusual choice, as we know from other works, such as an 1847 view of the Bay of Naples4, that the artist often used such cards as a support. The mountainous waves dominating the dramatically illuminated foreground of our work are shot through with white spume; and just such a breaker seems to be crashing over the listing sailing ship beyond, whose aft colours identify it as a French vessel. The wrecked rigging and scraps of sail tell of the defencelessness of the crew, now utterly at the mercy of the raw violence of nature. The inky blue of the sea in the background makes the roiling waters seem even more menacing, as does the dark purplish grey of the dense wall of cloud on the right. Only the clouds drifting apart at top left promise relief from the agonising drama below. While it is impossible to make out any figures on board the stricken ship, this is clearly a work about the imponderables of the human condition, true to the traditional navigatio vitae topos. On closer inspection, the only witnesses to the unfolding disaster are the gulls rendered as faint streaks of white against the lowering sky. Thus the observer is left alone with his emotions, be it compassion for the ship’s doomed crew or the fervent hope that perhaps all is not lost. Far above the heaving waves imperilling the ship and threatening to send it to the bottom, the painter has the clouds at top left part to reveal a glimpse of blue sky – and with it the hope of a calmer sea and perhaps even rescue.

Mrs. Marie Lødrup Bang has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work and on the basis of a colour photograph declared it identical with No. 989 of her catalogue raisonné.

  1. Claude Joseph Vernet (1714–1789) is widely regarded as one of the great seascape painters of the eighteenth century.

  2. In addition to the aforementioned Dutch and French marine painters, Dahl might also have been inspired by works of literature such as the 1788 novel Paul et Virginie by Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814), which in Europe was widely read until well into the nineteenth century.

  3. Dahl und Friedrich. Romantische Landschaften, exh. cat. Nasjonalgalleriet Oslo 2014 and Albertinum Dresden 2015, Dresden 2014, p. 182.

  4. Johann Christian Clausen Dahl, Vesuvius, Viewed from Posillipo, 1847, oil on cardboard, 7 x 11.3 cm, Freies Deutsches Hochstift Frankfurter Goethe-Museum inv. no. IV-2016-009

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