Carl Dahl made his reputation through his close collaboration with Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), the greatest of Denmark’s masters during the first half of the nineteenth century. After enrolling at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1837, Dahl devoted almost five years to the study of anatomy and proportion by copying plaster models. With landscape artist Jens Peter Møller as his teacher, he quickly began specialising in seascapes. In 1840 he visited Lisbon and painted a view of the city that was immediately acquired by the Portuguese Royal Museum. From 1842 to 1848 he taught perspective at the Royal Academy and worked regularly with Eckersberg, rapidly assimilating his style and replacing him for fine work when the Golden Age master’s sight began to fail around 1850. Dahl won the prestigious Neuhausen Prize and received a Royal Academy travel bursary that left him free to explore the shores of the Mediterranean for three years (1853–1855). Later he would spend time in Norway (1861) and the Faroe Islands (1862).

In contrast with his many carefully polished seascapes and their sailing vessels seemingly suspended in time and space, our view of the outskirts of Marseille – perhaps the port at L’Estaque – is taken from life, bathed in the light of evening and structured around a play on atmosphere. Here Dahl has opted for a simple, classical composition in three parallel bands: the sea, the group of houses and other buildings, and the sky and the mountains. The straightforward palette is close to that of his Scandinavian coastlines: brick red for the roofs and blue for water and sky in pictures suffused with a limpid, transparent light. Taking advantage of paper’s quick-drying quality, he has brought a certain freedom and a remarkable economy of means to his handling of the reflections along the shoreline and the shapes of the scudding clouds. Saving his use of elaborate detail for the picture’s architectural aspects – peeling walls, crooked shutters, the variations in colour and texture of the windowless walls – he sometimes achieves a fine realism. The beautifully observed buildings, unified by a left-to-right diagonal, are a reminder of his mastery of perspective: the eye is led smoothly from the longer structures in the foreground to the interlocking houses further off.

Gwilherm Perthuis


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