Dahl visited Vesuvius just before Christmas 1820, to witness its eruptions at close-hand. He immediately made an oil sketch (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) that served as the basis for the present work, completed four years later for Prince Christian Frederik, later King Christian VIII of Denmark. Vesuvius had attracted artists and Grand Tourists alike since the rediscovery of Pompeii in the mid-eighteenth century, offering a vision of the Sublime that served as a counterpoint to the austerity of Neoclassicism.
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Title:An Eruption of Vesuvius
Artist:Johan Christian Dahl (Norwegian, Bergen 1788–1857 Dresden)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:37 x 54 3/4 in. (94 x 139.1 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Christen Sveaas, in celebration of the Museum's 150th Anniversary, 2019
Lava, fire, and steam spew from the caldera of Mount Vesuvius above the Bay of Naples. Depicted from behind, a pair of finely attired visitors on their Grand Tour view the event up-close. Their guides and donkeys wait patiently in the foreground at the lower right. The Eruption of Vesuvius is a striking depiction of a force of nature that animated the European imagination after 1748, when Pompeii, buried by the eruption of 79 AD, was rediscovered. A few years later, Edmund Burke described major natural phenomena that inspire a sense of awe as “Sublime” in his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). The text became foundational to the incipient Romantic era. By the early nineteenth century, visitors to Italy traveled south from Rome to Naples not only to see the city and its glorious Mediterranean setting, but with the hope of witnessing an eruption like the one depicted here.
This painting was commissioned in 1821 by Dahl’s most important patron, Danish Crown Prince Christian Frederik, the future King Christian VIII, who eventually acquired eighteen works by the Norwegian artist. A longtime territory of Denmark’s, Norway received its own constitution in 1814, but ambitious Norwegians typically sojourned in Copenhagen to develop their skills after reaching the limits of educational possibilities in their still-provincial country. Dahl left his native Bergen in 1811, studying for seven years with the landscape painter Christian August Lorentzen (1749–1828) at the Royal Academy of Fine Art. It was there that Dahl first gained the attention of Christian Frederik. In 1818, Dahl moved to Dresden, where Christian Frederik visited him in the spring of 1819, en route to Italy. In May 1820, Dahl received an invitation to join the prince, who offered to cover his expenses. The painter left Dresden on June 13 and arrived at the palace of Quisisana, above Castellammare on the Bay of Naples, on August 11. He remained in Italy for ten months, leaving from Rome on June 21, 1821.
Vesuvius erupted on December 20, 1820, and Dahl ascended the volcano as quickly as he could to observe the phenomenon on the spot. The next day he painted a sketch, or study, to record what he had seen. On July 13, 1824, Christian Frederik wrote to Dahl, expressing pleasure that the artist was working on a painting of Vesuvius for him, which “judging from the sketch, cannot fail to impress.” This was presumably the sketch that Dahl executed immediately after the eruption, which Christian Frederik could have seen in Naples, or afterward, in Rome. That sketch is probably the one now in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, which is signed and dated December 24, 1820 (Bang 1987, no. 257). Dahl exhibited the present work in the Dresden Academy’s annual exhibition in 1824. It was delivered to the patron in January 1825 and exhibited at the Danish Academy’s annual exhibition in Copenhagen later that year.
Dahl painted two versions of this composition before he left Italy. One, dated February 21, 1821, is also in the Statens Museum (Bang 296). Another was produced in Rome in 1821 for the Prussian consul, Jacob Bartholdi, and is now in the KODE Art Museums, Bergen (Bang 316). There are at least four other versions, dated 1826 (Städel Museum, Frankfurt; Bang 510), 1845 (whereabouts unknown, Bang 1032), what may be a copy after the present work possibly executed by 1832 (Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo; Bang 1254), and another, possibly datable about 1820–24 (private collection, Salten, Norway, in 1987; Bang 1284).
There are two related drawings, a study of ships in the bay, dated “24 Octbr 1820,” and a study of the man to the right by the flames, signed, dated, and inscribed “Prof. Friedrich’s Figur. Dahl 1824.” (Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, inv. nos. B 2600 and B 2726).
This entry is based on Bang 1987, vol. 1, pp. 50–63, 175–77, and pages noted above as well as under References.
Asher Miller 2019
 See Lucio Fino, Vesuvius and the Grand Tour: Vedute and Travel Memoirs from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, trans. Angela Federico, Naples, 2012.
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): Dahl d. 24 Decbr 1824
Prince Christian Frederik, from 1840 King Christian VIII of Denmark, Copenhagen (1825–d. 1848; commissioned in 1821; received by January 1825); his son, King Frederik VII (1848–d. 1863); his widow, Louise Rasmussen, Grevinde Danner (until d. 1874; her estate sale, Copenhagen, June 19 or September 22, 1874, no. 5); private collection, Copenhagen, by descent (until 1995; sale, Christie's, London, October 11, 1995, no. 29, for £309,500 [$487,478], to Sveaas); Christen Sveaas, Norway (1995–2019)
Dresden. Akademie der Künste. "Annual exhibition," August 3–?, 1824, not in catalogue [see Bang 1987].
Copenhagen. Royal Academy of Fine Arts. "Annual exhibition," March 31–?, 1825, no. 44 (as “En Lavastrøm paa Vesuv I December 1820. Landskabet over Havbugten ved Neapel I Aftenbelysning,” lent by H.H. Prince Christian, The Royal Picture Collection [see Reitzel 1883 and Bang 1987]).
Copenhagen. Royal Academy of Fine Arts. 1840, no catalogue? [see Bang 1987].
Copenhagen. Royal Academy of Fine Arts. 1860, no. 37 [see Bang 1987].
Copenhagen. location unknown. "Den nordiske Industri- og Kunstudstilling," 1872, no. 810 [see Bang 1987].
Oslo. Nasjonalgalleriet. "Dahls Dresden," October 11–December 7, 1980, no. 69 (lent by a private collection, Denmark).
Stockholm. Nationalmuseum. "Romantiken i Dresden: Caspar David Friedrich och hans samtida 1800-1850," December 26, 1980–March 22, 1981, no. 31.
Oslo. Nasjonalgalleriet. "Johan Christian Dahl, 1788–1857: Jubileumsutstilling, 1988," February 27–May 1, 1988, no. 81.
Bergen Billedgalleri. "Johan Christian Dahl, 1788–1857: Jubileumsutstilling, 1988," May 19–July 3, 1988, no. 81.
Jevnaker, Norway. Kistefos-Museet. "Det naere og det opphøyde Johan Christian Dahls møte med den storslagne natur," May 20–September 10, 2000, no. 12.
Fortnegnelse over Hans Kongelige Höihed Prinds Christian Frederiks Malerisamling; . . . övet Kunsten I Danmark [Register of the Art Collection of Prince Christian Frederik, later Christian VIII]. n.d., no. 49 [ms. in Danish National Archives, Copenhagen; see Bang 1987], gives the date of the commission as 1821.
T. "Dresden, Die lezte [sic] Kunst-Ausstellung." Hesperus (1824), p. 862 [see Bang 1987].
Johan Christian Dahl. Letter to Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. March 24, 1824 [see Bang 1987], states that he will probably complete it in the summer.
Prince Christian Frederik. Letter to Johan Christian Dahl. July 31, 1824 [excerpt trans. in Bang 1987], expresses pleasure that the artist was working on a painting of Vesuvius for him, which “cannot fail to impress”.
Johan Christian Dahl. Diary entry. January 1825 [see Bang 1987], mentions letter from G. E. Harzen about the arrival of the painting in Copenhagen.
Prince Christian Frederik. Letter to Johan Christian Dahl. January 22, 1825 [quoted in Aubert 1920; trans. Ormhaug 2018], writes “I have received the most beautiful adornment to my collection in the form of your incomparable painting depicting the glowing lava flow on Vesuvius and the view from that mountain of Naples and the beautiful bay. Painters admire your bold and confident brushwork. Everyone who sees this magnificent painting is astonished and delighted with its effect, in addition to which I admire the great veracity of the depiction . . . . ”.
Johan Christian Dahl. Einnahmen für die Jahre 1824–1855. January 22, 1825 [Universitetsbiblioteket, Oslo, Ms. Fol. 1882k; excerpt published in English transl. in Bang 1987], notes “From Thomsen for Vesuvius – P. C. 245 Rd.,” referring to payment for this painting.
Johan Christian Dahl. Diary entry. January 29, 1825 [see Bang 1987], mentions letter from Crown Prince Christian Frederik expressing delight about it.
Carl Reitzel. Fortegnelse over Danske Kunstneres Arbejder paa de ved det Kgl. Akademi for de Skjønne Kunster i Aarene 1807–1882 afholdte Charlottenborg-Udstillinger. Copenhagen, 1883, p. 106.
Friedrich von Boetticher. Malerwerke des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts. Vol. 1, Dresden, 1891, p. 210, no. 10 [reprint, 1974].
Andreas Aubert. Maleren Johan Christian Dahl; et stykke av forrige aarhundredes kunst- og kulturhistorie. Kristiania [Oslo], 1920, pp. 134, 442.
Pontus Grate et al. Dahls Dresden. Exh. cat., Nasjonalgalleriet. Oslo, 1980, p. 82, no. 69, as “Vesuv i utbrudd”.
Pontus Grate et al. Romantiken i Dresden: Caspar David Friedrich och hans samtida 1800–1850. Exh. cat., Nationalmuseum. Stockholm, , p. 50, no. 31.
Dyveke Helsted. "Christian VIII: An Intelligent Amateur." Apollo 120 (December 1984), p. 421, fig. 6.
Marie Lødrup Bang. Johan Christian Dahl, 1788–1857: Life and Works. Oslo, 1987, vol. 1, pp. 169, 176; vol. 2, pp. 14, 110 (under no. 257), 118 (under no. 296), 122 (under no. 316), 157–58, 174 (under no. 510), 309 (under no. 1032), 359 (under no. 1254), 364 (under no. 1284), no. 451; vol. 3, pl. 182, publishes early manuscript references.
Bjarne Jørnæs in Marie Lødrup Bang et al. J. C. Dahl i Italien, 1820–21. Exh. cat., Thorvaldsens Museum. Copenhagen, 1987, p. 81, under no. 42.
Magne Malmanger inJohan Christian Dahl, 1788–1857: Jubileumsutstilling, 1988. Exh. cat., Nasjonalgalleriet. Oslo, 1988, pp. 134, 164–65, no. 81, ill. (color).
Kasper Monrad. The Golden Age of Danish Painting. Exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 72, under no. 12, in the entry for the painted study in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (Bang 1987, no. 257), notes that Dahl "made a number of replicas" (of which The Met's version is one).
Johan Christian Dahl: Kistefos-Museet, Museum og Galleri. Ed. Nina Sørlie. Exh. cat., Kistefos-Museet. Jevnaker, Norway, 2000, p. 146, no. 12, ill. p. 79 and on dust jacket (color, overall and detail).
Bodil Sørensen. J. C. Dahl: Tegninger fra Italia-reisen 1820–21. Exh. cat., Nasjonalgalleriet. Oslo, 2004, p. 62, under no. 82.
Landet der Sitroner Gror: Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley og Johan Gørbitz i Syd-Italia. Ed. Anne Aaserud. Exh. cat., Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Tromsø, Norway, 2005, p. 58, under no. 13.
Knut Ormhaug inJ. C. Dahl: The Power of Nature. Exh. cat., KODE Art Museums and Composer Homes. Bergen, 2018, p. 69.
Asher Ethan Miller inGifts of Art: The Met's 150th Anniversary. New York, 2020, p. 82, ill. (color).
Gifts of Art: The Met's 150th Anniversary. New York, 2020, p. 194.
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