Turner to Monet
… this amazing mountain continues to exhibit such various scenes of sublimity and beauty at exactly the distance one would chuse to observe it from; a distance which almost admits examination, and certainly excludes immediate fear … columns of flame, high as the mountain’s self, shoot from its crater into the clear atmosphere with a loud and violent noise … a thick cloud, charged heavily with electric matter, passing over, met the fiery explosion …
Hester Thrale, 17891
Mount Vesuvius was especially active in the late eighteenth and for most of the nineteenth century.2This fact, along with a growing awareness of the natural sciences in this period, meant the volcano attracted a great deal of interest. Indeed images of Vesuvius in various states of activity, as well as other scenes of uncontrollable nature – avalanches, storms, fires – became synonymous with the Sublime and with Romantic art. In the 1770s the English artist Joseph Wright of Derby, Frenchman Pierre-Jacques Volaire and German Jacob Philipp Hackert all produced views of Vesuvius, establishing the conventions for subsequent images. They presented the erupting volcano as a spectacle by moonlight, rivers of lava observed by tiny frock-coated gentlemen, juxtaposed against the built environment or surrounded by calm harbours. The paintings produced by later Romantic artists tended, on the other hand, to portray the volcano with as much precision and more emotion.
In 1818, Dahl, Bergen-born and Copenhagen-trained, set out for an extensive study tour of the continent – although he didn’t make it very far. Travelling via Poland and then Berlin, he settled in Dresden where, apart from his 1820–21 sojourns to Italy and frequent trips back to Norway, he remained for the rest of his life. Dahl witnessed some of the 1820 eruptions while in Naples; he sketched Vesuvius on the spot, subsequently producing many paintings based on these experiences. Dahl shares this fantastic composition with his friend and compatriot, the Viennese painter Josef Rebell.3In both paintings, the profusion of colour, audacity of the scene and its sheer extremes – the gleam of the bright moonlit sky, the glow of molten lava tumbling into the sea, the treacherous waves set against perilous rocks – convey ‘not a sense of fear but a sort of ecstasy’.4
Much of the fascination of Eruption of Vesuvius is a result of the combination of the opposing elements of fire and water. Usually a stormy sea such as this would be enough in itself to engender a sense of awe. Here it is pitted against a volcano, which shoots flames into the sky, fills the sky with black smoke and scatters fiery girandoles far and wide. The debris even reaches a stone monument adorned with a cross, on the rocky shore opposite – dangerously close to where we are standing! On the right-hand side, soot merges with the silhouetted coast. The moon ventures through the darkened clouds, just enough to cast light on the foreboding scene below. This is Sublime Nature. We feel the power of Vesuvius and anticipate its destructive forces.
1 Herbert Barrows (ed.), Observations and reflections: made in the course of a journey through France, Italy and Germany by Hester Lynch Piozzi, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1967, pp. 223–4.
2 There were six major eruptions in the 1700s and a further eight next century: in 1822, 1834 and 1839; two each in the 1850s and 1860s; and again in 1872.
3 It is not known if Dahl’s is a copy after Rebell, or whether the two artists worked together in Italy. Rebell’s The eruption of Vesuvius at night 1822 is in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.
4 Johann Kräftner, Liechtenstein Museum Vienna: Neoclassicism and Biedermeier, Munich and New York: Prestel, Vienna: Liechtenstein Museum, 2004, p. 118.