Writing to the first owner of this painting, Dahl identified the figures on the shore as the wife and child of a fisherman on the approaching boat. While the picture enjoys a rapport with themes explored by his fellow artist and neighbor, Friedrich, its subject may have held deeply personal resonance for Dahl: his father was a fisherman, and two of his own children died in the year prior to the completion of this work.
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Title:Mother and Child by the Sea
Artist:Johan Christian Dahl (Norwegian, Bergen 1788–1857 Dresden)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:6 1/4 x 8 1/8 in. (15.9 x 20.6 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Eugene V. Thaw, 2007
Inscription: Signed and dated indistinctly (lower left): [?J] Dahl 1830.
Jørgen Hansen Koch, Copenhagen (by December 14, 1830; bought from the artist with another painting, probably "Autumn Landscape near Dresden" [private collection, Copenhagen; Bang 1987, no. 605], as pendants, for 20 species each, as a gift for his wife); his wife, Mrs. Jørgen Hansen Koch, Copenhagen (from 1830); N. Sontum, Bergen (in 1937); Ingrid Sontum; Håkon Mehren, Oslo (until about 1981; sold to Arnoldi-Livie); [Galerie Arnoldi-Livie, Munich, about 1981; sold to Stebbins]; Theodore Ellis Stebbins Jr., Boston (from about 1981); sale, Sotheby's, New York, October 12, 1994, no. 336, as "Figures on a Beach by Moonlight"; Eugene Victor Thaw, Santa Fe (by 2001–7)
Copenhagen. Charlottenborg Palace. March 31–?, 1831, no. 45 (as "Maaneskinsstykke," lent by J. H. Koch) [see Reitzel 1883 and Bang 1987].
Copenhagen. Charlottenborg Palace. 1869, no. 43 [see Bang 1987].
New York. Artemis Fine Arts, Inc. "Danish Paintings of the Golden Age," April 21–May 28, 1999, no. 16 (lent by a private collector, USA).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers," September 11–November 11, 2001, no. 14 (lent by a private collection).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Light," April 10–July 10, 2017, no catalogue.
Jørgen Hansen Koch. Letter to Johan Christian Dahl. May 28, 1830 [Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen; excerpt published in English transl. in Bang 1987, vol. 2, p. 204 under no. 605], states his wish to purchase a small painting as a gift for his wife, to cost no more than 30 to 40 Species, and to be picked up from the artist by Koch's sister-in-law.
Johan Christian Dahl. Diary entry. June 12, 1830 [Universitetsbiblioteket, Oslo, Ms. 1001, 8°; excerpt published in English transl. in Bang 1987, vol. 2, p. 213 under no. 641], notes receipt and content of Koch's letter dated May 28, 1830.
Johan Christian Dahl. Letter to Jørgen Hansen Koch. October 8, 1830 [Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen; excerpt published in English transl. in Bang 1987, vol. 2, p. 204 under no. 605, p. 213 under no. 641], proposes selling two smaller paintings to Koch for 40 Species (for both, including frames), to be paid to the artist's friend Cancelliraad Thomsen; describes the subject of this picture as "a coast in moonlight where a woman and her child are waiting for an approaching boat bearing a close relation"; states that both paintings will be sent in a few days.
Jørgen Hansen Koch. Letter to Johan Christian Dahl. December 14, 1830 [Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen; excerpt published in English transl. in Bang 1987, vol. 2, p. 204 under no. 605, p. 213 under no. 641], states that the pictures have arrived, that the sum has been paid, and that he and his wife are pleased with both paintings.
Johan Christian Dahl. Einnahmen für die Jahre 1824–1855. December 29, 1830 [Universitetsbiblioteket, Oslo, Ms. Fol. 1882k; excerpt published in English transl. in Bang 1987, vol. 2, p. 204 under no. 605, p. 213 under no. 641], notes in his account book that "Via Thomsen received from Justidsraad [Counsellor] Koch in Copenhagen for two pictures – 60 rd.".
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. 107, lists it under Exh. Copenhagen 1831 as "Maaneskinsstykke," with J. H. Koch as owner and P. Koch as the "assessor" [see Bang 1987].
Marie Lødrup Bang. Johan Christian Dahl, 1788–1857: Life and Works. Oslo, 1987, vol. 1, pp. 82, 171, 202 n. 38; vol. 2, pp. 204, 213, 280, 376, no. 641; vol. 3, pl. 641, identifies this picture as probably the pendant described on the verso of an "afterdrawing" of the painting "Autumn Landscape near Dresden" (1829; private collection, Dresden; Bang no. 605) [see Provenance]; lists two related drawings (1826 and 1827; both Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo), one of an anchor and the other of a woman and child on a beach; compares it to Friedrich's coastal landscapes, notably "Evening on the Baltic" (1826; Georg Schäfer Museum, Schweinfurt), based on another Dahl drawing of an anchor; mentions a variant of this picture (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham; Bang no. 915) and an unsigned replica (private collection, Munich), possibly a student copy.
Suzanne Ludvigsen. Danish Paintings of the Golden Age. Exh. cat., Artemis Fine Arts, Inc. New York, 1999, unpaginated, no. 16, ill. (color).
Sabine Rewald. Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, p. 50, no. 14, ill. (color), reproduces the studies for this picture.
Richard Verdi. "A Rediscovered 'Moonlight' by Johan Christian Dahl." Burlington Magazine 147 (February 2005), pp. 115–16, fig. 52, notes that the returning boat is presumably that of the child's father, adding "since Dahl's father was himself a fisherman, this lends an unmistakably autobiographical note to the scene and makes it an unusually personal work in the artist's career."
Paul Spencer-Longhurst. Moonrise over Europe: JC Dahl and Romantic Landscape. Exh. cat., Birmingham Barber Institute of Fine Arts. London, 2006, pp. 41–43, 64, 66, 72, 74, 78, fig. 21 (color), suggests that the death of Dahl's two children in 1829 and his wife's pregnancy in 1830 inform the anecdotal nature of this picture with an element of pathos.
Sabine Rewald in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2006–2007." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Fall 2007), p. 39, ill. (color).
Esther Bell. "Catalogue Raisonné of the Thaw Collection." Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection. Ed. Jennifer Tonkovich. New York, 2011, p. 114, no. 37, ill. (color), calls it "Mother and Child by the Sea".
In a letter to its prospective owner, the architect J. H. Koch, the painter described this work as "a coast in moonlight where a woman and her child are waiting for an approaching boat bearing a close relation."
Two drawings have been identified as having been used as studies for Mother and Child by the Sea (both Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo; see Rewald 2001, p. 50, ill.). The first, a study of an anchor, is dated 1826. The second, dated April 1827, depicts a woman and child on a beach observing a passing sailboat. Dahl had employed similar settings in recent works, as had his friend and neighbor in Dresden, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819; State Museum, Dresden) Dahl owned. Other biographical details are also worth noting here, given the artist's description of the subject and its date of 1830: his own father was a fisherman; also, two of his children died in the year prior to the completion of the painting.
Another painting by Friedrich is probably relevant to the genesis of the present work. For his 1826 painting Evening on the Baltic (Georg Schäfer Museum, Schweinfurt; see Helmut Börsch-Supan and Karl Wilhelm Jähnig, Caspar David Friedrich: Gemälde, Druckgraphik und bildmäßige Zeichnungen, Munich, 1973, no. 350), the German painter used a drawing by Dahl which is contemporary with the aforementioned anchor study: this one, dated May 5, 1826, depicts an anchor before a beached boat (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo; see Leif Ostby, Johan Christian Dahl: Tegninger og Akvareller, Oslo, 1957, pp. 29–30, ill. on p. 140; see also Werner Sumowski, Caspar David Friedrich-Studien, Wiesbaden, 1970, p. 123).
Dahl executed a version of this composition in 1840 (21 x 31 cm; Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham; Bang 1987, no. 915). More highly finished than the present work, it was rediscovered at the time it was included in Exh. New York 2001 (not in cat.) and was subsequently the centerpiece of the exhibition and associated publication Spencer-Longhurst 2006. The artist made a drawing after this version for his "Liber Veritatis" (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo).
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