Johan Christian Dahl – View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839)

“Why has looking at the moon become so beneficiary, so soothing and so sublime?”, asked German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1840. “Because the moon remains purely an object for contemplation, not of the will. […] Furthermore, the moon is sublime, and moves us sublimely because it stays aloof from all our earthly activities, it sees all, yet takes no part in it…”, he went on to answer. With the advent of German Romanticism, represented so well by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, moonlight became one of the most used motifs in art and literature, symbolizing serene contemplation and the presence of the divine.

Johan Christian Dahl also embraced moonlight as a motif to convey serenity and peace in some of his most iconic paintings. Dahl was a Norwegian-born artist who spent a large part of his life in Germany – Dresden, in particular – where he befriended the well-renowned painter Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich, fourteen years Dahl’s senior, influenced the latter’s art, although differences still remained. For one thing, the Norwegian’s paintings were less mystical and more naturalistic, often searching for a sense of harmony. These two artists grew very close, becoming godfathers to each other’s children, painting and exhibiting together and, starting in 1824, even sharing the same house, both their families living under one roof.

Johan Christian Dahl - View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839)
Johan Christian Dahl – View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839), oil on canvas

View of Dresden by Moonlight, completed almost two decades after Dahl settled in Dresden, depicts a nighttime city scene, with the glossy and shimmering Elbe River and a largely overcast sky dominating much of the composition. In the background, we can see the Augustus Bridge and the silhouette of the Baroque Church of our Lady (Dresden Frauenkirche) dome, while to the right we have the Old Town (Altstadt), the city’s historical center. The moon, piercing through the clouds, offers a fairytale glow to the whole view.

Although Friedrich’s influence is present, one cannot help but notice that Dahl’s painting is far more lively and integrated compared to his friend’s solitary mysticism. In the Norwegian’s interpretation, nature and people coexist harmoniously, the former enveloping the city with its magic and serenity. What could have been a meditation on loneliness and disconnection, or even an homage to the otherworldly, becomes a comforting reassurance that one is not alone, thanks to all the subtle signs of human activity that the Norwegian included. You can zoom in here. There are carriages and people on the bridge, small fires lit on boats, women doing laundry and men tending their horses. Even the woman in the foreground, looking at the river in front of her, has a small dog as companion. The serene beauty of the night acts like the common thread bringing together all these different elements. Awash in moonlight, Dresden appears truly magical and comforting.

19 thoughts on “Johan Christian Dahl – View of Dresden by Moonlight (1839)

      1. Not in terms of subject matter but after looking at art I get all antsy and want to go out start taking pictures as soon as I can. The funny thing is that the more art I look at in a given time period, the stronger the desire to start taking pictures.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Ahh, I live for nights like these.
    How absolutely serene and peaceful.
    The moon is a but a boat,
    that rides the waves of clouds
    while the still river, watches
    as time freezes in its womb.

    Thank you for this piece💐

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wunderbar! So you’re a night owl too. I’ve been thinking recently about this, how much I love those midnight hours. I live for them! They bring me so much joy and bliss. There’s just nothing better in this world than that rich, velvety silence that only visits us at nighttime. It’s like time stands perfectly still: yesterday is gone and tomorrow hasn’t yet arrived. Aaaahhh, happiness!

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      1. See, I brought my fishing net and retrieved this comment from the depths of the night of internet comment black hole.

        So, yes, absolutely. Nights and their silence are bliss, home, beauty, warmth and solace.

        I weave shreds of nights into blindfolds and face my dreams with a calm surrender. In the mornings, I find myself cocooned under pillows and sheets, wishing that the Sunlight was merely a dream.
        But, alas.

        Liked by 1 person

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