Mother and Child by the Sea – Johan Christian Clausen Dahl

Mother and Child by the Sea (1840) by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/mother-and-child-by-the-sea-33070

Johan Christian Dahl’s Mother and Child by the Sea sits quietly tucked into a corner at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. It’s a surprisingly small piece; I didn’t even notice it on my first visit to the gallery. There is much to be said about the history behind this artwork, but what really stands out to me is the painting itself. The dark clouds obscure a sun, or perhaps a moon. A boat approaches the shore and a woman and child wait upon the rocks. The artwork tells an ambiguous story, though much of the ambiguity is cleared away upon further investigation.

This painting is dated 1840. Ten years prior, Dahl had painted a very similar piece.

Mother and Child by the Sea (1830) by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl:
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438954

Writing to the owner of the 1830 painting, Dahl mentioned that the characters were the wife and child of the fisherman who was approaching the shore. This seems to parallel Dahl’s own life – his father was a fisherman, and rather tragically Dahl lost both his first wife and his second wife to childbirth, and three of his five children passed away as well. Death is a reoccurring theme with this artwork – Dahl’s good friend, the artist Caspar David Friedrich, passed away in 1840 as well, and Dahl’s painting seems to pay homage to Friedrich’s style.

I find that the ethereal quality of the work suggests a great depth of meaning to this small painting. Why is the atmosphere weighed down with gloom if the occasion is a happy one? Is it dawn or dusk? Is Dahl the child who waits? Or is Dahl the father who wishes to “return” to his departed family members? With my piece I aim to capture the suggestive power of this painting, how it captures natural beauty, my interpretation of the characters’ emotions, and the juxtaposition of light and dark, joy and sorrow, life and death.

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