“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.
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.