Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Johan DAHL | Cloud study [Wolkenstudie]

DAHL, Johan
Norway 1788 – Germany 1857-10-14
Cloud study
oil on paper laid down on card
20.3 (h) x 20.0 (w) cm
frame 29.0 (h) x 29.0 (w) x 5.0 (d) cm
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
© bpk / Hamburger Kunsthalle / Elke Walford
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

Dahl came to Dresden in 1818 from the Copenhagen Academy. He soon joined the circle of the Dresden Romantics, centred around Friedrich and Carus. Friedrich’s immediate influence can be seen clearly in Dahl’s works from this period. His initial cloud studies in Dresden show the same delicate, atmospheric handling of the sky that can be observed in Friedrich’s landscapes. It was not until his visit to Italy in 1820–21, however, that Dahl first found his own expressive style. From that time onwards his paintings demonstrate the characteristic use of colour and painterly freedom that even Friedrich admired and sometimes emulated.

From 1823 Dahl lived in Dresden in the same house as Friedrich. From the studio window of his apartment he had an unrestricted view over the River Elbe, a fact that was influential in stimulating his interest in cloud studies. He undertook a large series of studies of the sky at different times of day and under various weather conditions. He painted most of these studies using a smaller format than for the rest of his works, and occasionally inscribed the date on them. His interest in the accurate observation of the sky and clouds was stimulated by the discussion that had arisen amongst his fellow Dresden artists in response to Goethe’s essay ‘Howard’s cloud forms’ of c. 1820.

Goethe approached a number of artists with a view to getting them to paint visual representations of Howard’s cloud classifications. While Friedrich declined the request, Carus incorporated the principles of scientific exactitude into his own theory and practice of landscape painting. He shared his enthusiasm for Goethe’s work on Howard with Dahl. Shortly before Dahl’s second journey to Norway in 1828, Carus lent him his own edition of Howard’s ‘Essay on the modification of clouds’. Howard’s work intensified Dahl’s scientific approach to painting and in the following years he painted more cloud studies than he had ever done before.

The small format, and use of cardboard for the support, lead us to conclude that Dahl actually painted the 1832 study en plein air. The study shows powerful cumulus clouds hovering over the landscape. Dahl paints their bright sunlit-defined forms using strong, muscular brushstrokes. Unlike Constable, he places more emphasis on the cloud’s contours and their sense of mass.

Jenns Howoldt

Translated by Mark Henshaw and Christine Dixon.