This beautifully atmospheric landscape was made by Johan Christian Dahl whilst he was in Naples from August 1820 to February 1821. Dahl had been invited to Naples by Prince Christian Frederick, Crown Prince of Denmark. In Italy Dahl experienced for the first time both Mediterranean light and the pyrotechnics of an erupting volcano, Vesuvius was, at the time, in a period of continuous activity. These new sensations are frequently regarded as having a transformative effect upon Dahl’s conception of landscape, forcing him away from structured compositions derived from his close study of old masters, towards a more naturalistic register. Dahl’s handful of oils depicting Vesuvius erupting are particularly important in the development of his landscape art. Showing, as they do, volcanic activity at night, they combine treatment of the sublime with a new romantic power and intensity. This boldly worked and dramatic oil is preserved in exceptional condition and ranks as one of the Dahl’s boldest and most significant Italian oils.
Dahl was the son of a fisherman from Bergen, Norway. Originally intended for the priesthood, Dahl was educated at Bergen Cathedral, but he showed a precocious ability as a painter and from 1803 to 1809 he studied with the painter Johan George Müller. Another local figure, Lyder Sagen, raised a subscription to make it possible for Dahl to attend the academy in Copenhagen. In the cosmopolitan city, Dahl immersed himself in the city’s collections of old master paintings writing to Sagen that he had been studying works by Jacob van Ruisdael and Allaert van Everdingen, but it was the countryside around Copenhagen that he appreciated most, noting to Sagen that he was studying ‘nature above all.’ Dahl exhibited landscapes regularly at exhibitions in Copenhagen from 1812 attracting the patronage of Prince Christian Frederick of Denmark who acquired a series of works by Dahl for the Royal collection. In 1816 C. W. Eckersberg returned from three years working in Italy with his paintings of Rome, Dahl was immensely impressed and captivated by the work of his older contemporary. But it was Dahl’s meeting with another artist, Caspar David Friedrich, which was going to have a decisive impact upon his trajectory as a landscape painter.
In September 1818 Dahl travelled to Dresden, where Friedrich was already established, the two artists became great friends. 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 already hugely celebrated by Dahl’s arrival in Dresden. Friedrich gave Dahl his small oil Two Men contemplating the Moon, now in the Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, painted in 1819. It shows two ‘Rückfiguren’ solemnly contemplating a young sickle moon from the edge of an old forest. Friedrich was fourteen years older than Dahl and an established artist, but the two found in each other a shared interest in the intense observation of nature and for producing landscape paintings which avoided picturesque compositional devices. Friedrich’s impact on Dahl’s painting was to invest his landscapes with a potent, numinous quality; Friedrich’s greatest works combine close observation of the natural world with an otherworldly atmosphere, something Dahl readily adopted.
Prince Christian Frederick wrote to Dahl in 1820 from Italy and invited him to join him at the Gulf of Naples. Dahl ended up spending ten months in Naples and produced a series of highly charged landscapes, including several nocturns which betray the deep impact of Friedrich. The present oil shows a view of Mount Vesuvius from Castellammare di Stabia, a settlement between Naples and Sorrento, on the site of the ancient city of Stabiae, which had been destroyed during the eruption of AD79. The brooding, late summer view shows tumultuous waves crashing on the beach, the silhouette of Vesuvius in the background menacingly giving off its fulminous flames and smoke. The sky is dark, save for the remnants of the day, with golden light setting behind Vesuvius. Dahl has handled the paint remarkably thickly, using the body of the paint to create the foaming waves and texture of the spray on the shore. The composition shows Dahl’s absorption by the twin forces of volcanic activity and the sea, as such this plein air study appeals to contemporary notions of the sublime. The crepuscular landscape, illuminated by the concealed rays of the dying sun, evokes the other worldly light sources of Friedrich’s greatest landscapes. Almost certainly painted entirely en plein air, this oil study was retained by Dahl and used to help him complete a sequence of studies of Vesuvius erupting. These include a large, finished version of the composition which shows the sea in even great agitation, the waves crashing on to the beach and a pair of umbrella pines added to the right of the composition. This larger oil is now in the collection Uppsala University. Preserved in exceptional condition, this beautifully worked oil is one of Dahl’s most impressive Neapolitan sketches and gives powerful insight to Dahl’s development as a landscape painter.