Johan Christian Dahl – The Eruption of Vesuvius

8 Jul

“a smoke by day and a fire by night”

Johan Christian Dahl, The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1824

The ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with a thick layer of volcanic ash after the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Covered in ash, forgotten and asleep for more than a thousand years Pompeii was rediscovered in the mid eighteenth century and very soon many artists, wanderers and explorers started visiting the area. One of such curious wanderers who visited the Mount of Vesuvius was the Norwegian Romantic painter Johan Christian Dahl. In 1820 the prince Christian Frederik invited Dahl to join him in Naples and Dahl, despite being busy courting a young lady called Emilia, joyously agreed. He quickly married Emilia and travelled to Italy the next day and stayed there for the next ten months. In Italy Dahl finally discovered the vibrancy of colour and the light that would forever change his approach to painting. And he arrived just in time to see the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius on Christmas Day in 1820. This must have been an awe inspiring sight, just on the edge between danger and excitement, and Dahl quickly captured what he saw in an oil sketch, a sketch he would later use to paint the big painting you can see above.

The volcanic eruption is exactly the kind of wild, raw energy of nature which the Romantics loved and Dahl beautifully captures this energy in his painting. A dull, brown rocky scenery takes up almost half the painting, but then in the upper left corner the big explosion of colours makes up for the dullness of the rocks. Hot, thick red lava and smoke are portrayed with such quickness, rapture and immediacy, even though the painting was finished four years after Dahl had actually seen the volcano erupting. The smoke is built of feathery soft shades of white and grey with a few touches of blue. In the upper right corner we see the bay of Naples, so serene and safe compared to the erupting volcano. Two men are portrayed observing the eruption, and three other, along with donkeys, are waiting on a distance. The appearance of human figures isn’t something we see often in these types of romantic landscapes but they are visually useful because they show us just how small and insignificant man is compared to the wild, and often fickle nature. Dahl’s painting is just one of many Romantic landscapes which express the sublimity of nature. A raging volcano with smoke and lava brings out that wonderful feeling of awe and terror that the romantics loved so much. One such romantic couple who also visited the Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii in 1819 were Mary and Percy Shelley:

Mary, Shelley, and Claire arrived in Naples in December, they moved into one of the most beautiful houses in the city, No. 250 Riviera di Chiaia, which Shelley had rented with the hope of pleasing Mary. It was rumored that the ruins of Cicero’s villa were right under their window. To both Shelleys, the grand old senator stood for the freedom of the Roman republic and was an icon of hope. Nestled below the slopes of Vesuvius, which, as Shelley said, was “a smoke by day and a fire by night,” Naples had public gardens and boulevards lined with palm trees. Across the sea, they could see the outline of a mysterious island drifting in and out of the mist. This was the isle of Circe, as local lore had it, the beautiful temptress who lured Odysseus into her bed and kept him there for seven years. Another legend was that Virgil had composed his gentle, pastoral poems here, The Georgics. Mary delighted in “looking at almost the same scene that he did— reading about manners little changed since his days.” Together, she, Claire, and Shelley explored the famous sites: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Lake Avernus, and the Cumean Sybil’s cave. (…) The trio climbed Vesuvius and gazed out over the city’s steeples and red roofs to the sea. “A poet could not have a more sacred burying place [than] in an olive grove on the shore of a beautiful bay,” Mary wrote in her journal that winter, looking out at the pale blue water.” (Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws)

Maybe at first sight this painting isn’t that exciting, but just look at all these details! This red, although not used in abundance, is so vivid I can just feel it.

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