Tag Archives: romantic landscape

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.

Georg F. Kersting – Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio

8 Nov

Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes are very loved and appreciated nowadays for their dreamy, dusky and contemplative beauty, but how did they came to be? Where did Friedrich find his inspiration and what was the mood in which he created his beautiful artworks?

The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.

(Caspar David Friedrich)

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1811

In this portrait by his friend Kersting, the Romantic painter Friedrich is seen painting in his studio; a loner in his lonely cell. And look how bare, clean and ascetic the room seems, with bare wooden floors, a single window which lets in plenty of light which is important for painting, and nothing but the necessary furniture; a chair, a desk and an easel. There is no view from the window save for that of the sky. But that doesn’t even matter for this painter because his inspiration doesn’t come from gazing at nature and quickly sketching exactly what is in front of him. The way Friedrich’s landscapes came to be was firstly through walks in nature, with deep immersion into its mood and state; the way the clouds are, the very shade of pink the sky is, the way the air smells and feels.

In artist’s own words: I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am. Solitude is indispensible for my dialogue with nature. And then, the painting arises on canvas after a long, solitary artistic meditation over the canvas, gathering what he had seen in nature and merging the visions of the reality with his imagination. Oh, I can so imagine Friedrich, the solitary man (not like in Johnny Cash’s song though), with his blonde sideburns and piercing gaze walking broodingly on the damp shore of the dark and cold Baltic sea, wearing a navy coat and a face expression which says ‘don’t come near me’. Despite his well-known isolated nature, Friedrich had friends, many of whom were fellow painters, but as he grew older, as times were changing and the style of his art was slowly but surely falling out of fashion, his early natural-born shyness and melancholy gradually turned to bitterness and isolation.

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, 1822

His landscapes are not portrayals of nature as he saw it, but rather – as he felt it, and that gives them their lyrical gentle beauty, the soft gradations of colours, the dusky shades, pinks, purples, dreamy blues. There is not rushed, harsh sketchiness of the plein air paintings that Impressionists painted. Each of his landscapes carries a different mood, and is open to many different interpretations because it is imbued with so much feeling and depth. Friedrich’s landscapes are particularly dreamy and some have the element of sublime, and that makes them different from the landscapes painted around the same time by the English painters J.M.W.Turner and John Constable. John Constable’s landscapes and nature studies, in contrast, are plain and simple what they are; the green meadow, the strong brown tree trunk, there’s isn’t plenty of dreaming and symbolism involved. Near the end of Friedrich’s life Romanticism and its worldviews were on the wane, and more realistic approach to things replaced the dreaminess. Ideas and movements such as positivism and Naturalism couldn’t appreciate the dreaminess of Friedrich’s landscapes and they were forgotten up until the late nineteenth century when the Symbolists, who were also more interested in the transcendent rather than material aspects of life, rediscovered them and saw in them the kind of Beauty that they also proposed. People nowadays seem to truly appreciate Friedrich’s paintings, his art is certainly more than just rediscovered, maybe it’s because it is so full of dreams and while we gaze at it, it resonated with the slumbering dreams that lie within us.

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio, 1819

And here we have another version of Kersting’s portrait of Caspar David Friedrich painting in his studio. Kersting apparently thought that the image of Friedrich painting in his simple, bare, ascetic cell was so fascinating that eight years later he just had to paint it again. In this version, Friedrich is not actually shown painting, although we can assume that would be the next step. Here he is in a state of artistic meditation over his canvas, waiting for the perfect vision to clarify itself in his mind, waiting for the colours to pick themselves from the palette.

When Friedrich painted his wonderful landscapes everything but the Imagination was a distraction. A fellow painter of the time, Karl von Kügelgen wrote about Friedrich’s studio: “Even the things most necessary to painting – the box of paints, the bottles of linseed oil, and the oil-rag – were moved to the adjoining room, because Frederick was of the opinion that any objects would disturb his inner world of imagination…” I think I can understand things and clutter being distracting, but an empty bare room would disturb me I feel. Yet another painter and Friedrich’s pupil, Carl Gustav Carus, commented that Friedrich never made sketches: He never made sketches, cartoons, or color studies for his paintings, because he stated (and certainly he was not entirely wrong), that such aids chill the imagination somewhat. He did not begin to paint an image until it stood, living, in the presence of his soul…