Mountain Landscape with a Castle
(Johan Christian Dahl)


Although better know for his smaller scale works and plein-air sketches, Johan Christian Dahl’s large, naturalistic landscapes were considered by his contemporaries to be his major artistic achievement. Of the six large canvases painted by Dahl around this date, during breaks from his studies at the Copenhagen Academy, two are in the Statensmuseum Copenhagen, one in the Bergen Gallery, one in the Oslo National Gallery, and one remains in a private collection in Oslo (Bangs, op. cit., nos. 79, 88, 90, 95, & 113). This work was painted in difficult conditions, at Engelholm, a windswept coastal town on the north west coast of the Scania penisular, Sweden, a short boat trip from Elsinore. The artist complained in a letter to his patron Christian Thomsen (12th October 1816) that ‘it is getting so cold that I can hardly bear it unless I sit in a warm room and there is none available for my use.’ The artist even considered abandoning the project, but decided ultimately to go ahead, writing to Thomsen again on 29th October, ‘the sky and background are finished as well as the big rock in the middle ground; this has turned out very well – the first rock I have painted in a warm gray.’ Three weeks later, on 20th November, he wrote that he needed two more weeks to complete the work, and that ‘I cannot remember having worked so long on any painting, but then I have never done such a work at this time of the year. The days are dark and cold and I cannot start work before 10 o’clock in the morning.’

That he completed the work successfully is noted in a letter of the following Spring (7th April 1817), in which he wrote that this was a work of his own invention, while he disparaged the comments in the review, Skilderiet. This critic had complemented the painting as showing ‘genius, but not much study. The foreground in particular is beautiful, the waterfall excellent, but the greenish tone is not of the best effect.’ Dahl had invented this scene in a smaller painting, and it combines the influence of two of the most important artists to whom he looked at this time, his master Christian August Lorentzen, a specialist in dramatic mountain landscapes, and the great Dutch master Jacob Ruisdael who also influenced Friedrich.

Despite its origins in the artist’s imagination, this painting also unites elements from other works by the artist in a composition that demonstrate his fidelity to nature, without the exaggerated symbolism of Friedrich (whom he was to meet for the first time the following year). The small figures on either side are isolated from each other by the impassable torrent, the twisted windswept birch tree and conifer clad hills conjuring up images of desolation and solitude. While the roiling waters are based on observation from life, the castle dominating the hilltop is more Germanic than Norwegian, and combined in this dramatic composition they are evidently designed to arouse the romantic sensibility. The humble cottage with smoke issuing from its chimney and the sheep scattered on the hillside below the castle remind the viewer, however, that the natural world was still subject to man. These same themes, recalled from the mountains near his childhood home of Bergen, were repeated in Rome in the 1820s’ when recreating his Norwegian memories (i.e. in his smaller Norwegian Mountain Landscape with Waterfall, of 1821, acquired by the sculptor in that year and now in the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen). It was works such as these that earned him the regard of his contemporaries as a painter dedicated to compromising realism. A contemporary Dresden-trained artist, A. L. Richter wrote of Dahl’s Norwegian landscapes: ‘The older professors smiled openly at this heresy or folloy. The younger, however, marveled at it and imitated it as much as they could. The breath of the spring of a new time began to be felt.’

69 ¾ x 96 7/8 ins. 177 x 246 cm
Oil on canvas

Provenance: C.J. Thomsen, Copenhagen; Thomsen Sale, Copenhagen, 12 March 1865/13 March 1866, cat. no 34; Count v. Ahlefeldt, Copenhagen (sold 1893); Karl Johnsen, Oslo (until 1937); Winkel and Magnussen, auction sale, no. 240, 1938, cat. no. 23; Private collection, Norway.


Literature: Nyeste Skilderi af Kjøbenhaven, Copenhagen 1804 – 28, no. 27, 4 April 1917; Peder Hjort, Kritiske Bidrag til nyere dansk Toenkemaade og Dannelses Historie (containing his old reviews of the academy exhibitions in Copenhagen), Copenhagen, 1854, pp. 103 f; Carl Reitzel, Fortegnelse over Danskee Kunstneres Arbeider paa de ved det Kgl Akademi for de Skjonne Kunster I Aarene 1807 – 1882 afholdte Charlottenborg-Udstillinger, Copenhagen 1883, p. 105; Andreas Aubert, Maleren Johan Christian Dahl. Et av forrige Aarhundredes Kunst- oc Kulturhistorie, Kristiana 1920, pp 34, 325; Leif Østby, ‘J.C. Dahls Danske Lærear’ in Kunstmuseets Arsskrift, 1974, pp. 31 (ill.,) 38f. Marie Lødrup Bang, Johan Christian Dahl 1788 – 1857 Life and Works, Arlöv, 1987, Vol.II, No. 97, ill. Vol. III, Plate 47; Marit lange: Nasjonalgalleriet: Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1856, Jubileumsutstilling Oslo 1988, p. 97.


Exhibited: Charlottenborg, Royal Academy, 1817, no. 12.
Matthiesen Gallery & Stair Sainty Matthiesen, ‘Spring Catalogue’, 2001

Historical Period
Romanticism - 1810-1870
2001-European Paintings-From 1600-1917.
Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, Realism, Futurism.

(Click on image above)
Price band
Sold or not available