Johan Christian Dahl

Johan Christian Dahl
(Bergen 1788 - 1857 Dresden)

Sunset over Dresden, 1841

Oil on card, 6.5 x 11.7 cm
Signed lower right with the artist’s monogram and dated D. / 1841
Executed on the back of a printed invitation card to ‘Professor Dahl’ to attend a monthly meeting of the Dresden botanical association known as FLORA Einladung zur Monats-Versammlung der FLORA für / Herrn Professor Dahl / Local: im Zwinger Salon / Zeit: Donnerstag 4. Juny / präcise 5 Uhr

Probably Frau von der Decken, Dresden (gift of the artist in 1845);
Private collection, South Germany;
Private collection, New York.


Johan Christian Dahl depicted Dresden, his second home, frequently, from many different viewpoints and at all times of day. On completion of his studies at the Copenhagen Academy of Fine Arts he set off on the Grand Tour in the summer of 1818. He broke his journey in Dresden in the autumn. Here, he came into contact with Caspar David Friedrich who was to become a close friend. He travelled to Italy in 1820 but soon returned to Dresden. He settled permanently in the city in the following year. From 1823 onwards, Dahl and Friedrich shared a house with a view over the River Elbe. Dahl and Friedrich, together with Carl Gustav Carus, played a major role in the development of German Romantic painting. All three are regarded as the leading Dresden painters of the age.[1]


Fig. 1 Dresden by Moonlight, 1841

The first of these two oil sketches is an evening view of Dresden with its spires, towers and domes silhouetted against the darkening sky. This was one of Dahl’s favourite motifs. This sketch depicts a panoramic view right across the city to the hilly woodlands of the distant Elbe valley. The painting is an impressive example of Dahl’s singular ability to depict the colouristic richness of an evening sky. He has chosen to depict the city from a slightly raised viewpoint – unusually, on the right bank of the Elbe. The majority of his views of Dresden are not depicted from the right bank – a good example is the view executed in the same year titled Dresden by Moonlight. It is now in the collection of the Niedersächsische Landesgalerie in Hanover (Fig. 1).[2] Dahl has depicted the silhouette of the city with extraordinary precision, despite the small format of the work and despite the fluidity of his brushwork. From left to right are the steeple of the Kreuzkirche, the dome and towers of the Frauenkirche, the Hausmannsturm of the Residenz and the steeple of the Hofkirche. A smoking chimney and an Elbe sailing boat at the left edge of the image indicate the emergence of industrialization and the city’s burgeoning economic prosperity.

Both oil sketches were painted on the back of printed cards inviting Dahl to attend a meeting organized by the Dresden botanical association known as FLORA (Fig. 2). Dahl was a member of the association and often used their monthly invitation cards as material for small oil sketches of views. These views he often gave to friends as presents.[3]


Fig. 2 FLORA Invitation Card (verso of The Augustusbrücke in Dresden by Moonlight)

Until recently, the existence of the second oil sketch – titled The Augustusbrücke in Dresden by Moonlight – was only known in the form of a drawing of it by Dahl himself. This drawing is now in the collection of the Billedgalleri in Bergen, Norway. The drawing formed part of Dahl’s Liber Veritatis, a drawn record of his paintings begun in the 1820s to document works he had parted with. He usually recorded the format of the painting and the name of its new owner. He noted on the Bergen drawing that he gave the oil sketch to Fr. V. Decken in 1845. The recipient was a friend who lived in Dresden. In the years 1837 to 1856 he often gave her a small sketch as a Christmas gift. She kept these gifts in an album she had specially bound for them.[4]


Fig. 3 The Augustusbrücke in Dresden under Repair, 1845

Dahl produced a large number of paintings of the Augustusbrücke. In 1845 he executed three oil sketches[5] documenting the flood damage of March that year. His Christmas gift to his daughter Caroline in 1845 was a sketch in the same small format as the present work and also depicting the damage to the bridge caused by the spring flood. In August 1845 he painted a slightly larger view of Dresden by night (Fig. 3). It too depicts the bridge under repair and the temporary wooden structure erected. On the verso of all three paintings are annotations by Dahl describing the disaster. It has gone down in history as Saxony’s ‘Great Flood’. On 31 March 1845 the Elbe rose to a record level of 8.77 metres causing the fifth pier of the bridge to collapse.[6]


Fig. 4 Boats on the Elbe, 1833

Dahl integrates waterfront activities with the evocative atmosphere of a moonlit night. Like Sunset over Dresden, this oil sketch also displays the virtuosity of Dahl’s handling of detail in a small-format work. He has chosen a viewpoint on the left bank of the Elbe below the Semperoper. The viewer’s eye is led upstream towards the Augustusbrücke. High up on the fortifications is a group of onlookers. The temporary wooden structure on either side of the damaged pier of the bridge is illuminated by flares. Like the moonlight, the glow of the flares is reflected on the surface of the water. The rigging of the sailing boat in the foreground is silhouetted against the night sky. The composition itself is based on a drawing executed by Dahl in 1833 (Fig. 4)[7].

[1] Hans-Joachim Neidhardt, ‘Johan Christian Dahl – ein norwegischer Maler in Dresden’, in Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857. Ein Malerfreund Caspar David Friedrich, exhib. cat., Munich, Neue Pinakothek, Munich 1988, pp.15-9.

[2] Dresden by Moonlight, 1841, oil on canvas, 26.7 x 34.5 cm, Hanover, Niedersächsischen Landesgalerie. Bang, op. cit., II, no. 953.

[3] See Bang, op. cit., I, p.11.

[4] See Bang, op. cit., I, p.93; II, p.271 and p.389. Bang lists as many as fifteen gifts of paintings.

[5] The Augustusbrücke in Dresden, 1845, oil on canvas, 9 x 14 cm, private collection, Norway. See Bang, op. cit., II, no. 1034; The Augustusbrücke in Dresden under Repair, 1845, oil on canvas, 25.5 x 37 cm, Bergen, Billedgalleri, inv. 148 (1901). See Bang, op. cit., II, no. 1026.

[6] See Guido N. Poliwoda, Aus Katastrophen lernen: Sachsen im Kampf gegen die Fluten der Elbe 1784 bis 1845, Cologne 2007, pp.211-2.

[7] Boats on the Elbe, 1833, pencil on paper, 7.1 x 10.7 cm, Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, inv. NG.K&H.B.08052.

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