Caspar David Friedrich

Portrait of Caspar David Friedrich, Gerhard von Kügelgen c. 1810–20
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). 94.8 × 74.8 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg. This well-known and especially Romantic masterpiece was described by the historian John Lewis Gaddis as leaving a contradictory impression, "suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both."[1]

Caspar David Friedrich (5 September 1774 – 7 May 1840) was a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important German artist of his generation.[2] He is best known for his mid-period allegorical landscapes which typically feature contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies, morning mists, barren trees or Gothic ruins. His primary interest as an artist was the contemplation of nature, and his often symbolic and anti-classical work seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world. Friedrich's paintings characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that, according to the art historian Christopher John Murray, directs "the viewer's gaze towards their metaphysical dimension".[3]

Friedrich was born in the Pomeranian town of Greifswald at the Baltic Sea, where he began his studies in art as a young man. He studied in Copenhagen until 1798, before settling in Dresden. He came of age during a period when, across Europe, a growing disillusionment with materialistic society was giving rise to a new appreciation of spirituality. This shift in ideals was often expressed through a reevaluation of the natural world, as artists such as Friedrich, J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and John Constable (1776–1837) sought to depict nature as a "divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization".[4]

Friedrich's work brought him renown early in his career, and contemporaries such as the French sculptor David d'Angers (1788–1856) spoke of him as a man who had discovered "the tragedy of landscape".[5] Nevertheless, his work fell from favour during his later years, and he died in obscurity, and in the words of the art historian Philip B. Miller, "half mad".[6] As Germany moved towards modernisation in the late 19th century, a new sense of urgency characterised its art, and Friedrich's contemplative depictions of stillness came to be seen as the products of a bygone age. The early 20th century brought a renewed appreciation of his work, beginning in 1906 with an exhibition of thirty-two of his paintings and sculptures in Berlin. By the 1920s his paintings had been discovered by the Expressionists, and in the 1930s and early 1940s Surrealists and Existentialists frequently drew ideas from his work. The rise of Nazism in the early 1930s again saw a resurgence in Friedrich's popularity, but this was followed by a sharp decline as his paintings were, by association with the Nazi movement, interpreted as having a nationalistic aspect.[7] It was not until the late 1970s that Friedrich regained his reputation as an icon of the German Romantic movement and a painter of international importance.


Early years and family

Caspar David Friedrich was born on 5 September 1774, in Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania, on the Baltic coast of Germany.[8] The sixth of ten children, he was brought up in the strict Lutheran creed of his father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich, a candle-maker and soap boiler.[4] Records of the family's financial circumstances are contradictory; while some sources indicate the children were privately tutored, others record that they were raised in relative poverty.[9] Caspar David was familiar with death from an early age. His mother, Sophie Dorothea Bechly, died in 1781 when he was just seven.[10] A year later, his sister Elisabeth died,[11] while a second sister, Maria, succumbed to typhus in 1791.[9] Arguably the greatest tragedy of his childhood was the 1787 death of his brother Johann Christoffer: at the age of thirteen, Caspar David witnessed his younger brother fall through the ice of a frozen lake and drown.[12] Some accounts suggest that Johann Christoffer perished while trying to rescue Caspar David, who was also in danger on the ice.[13]

The chalk drawing Self-portrait, 1800, which portrays the artist at 26, was completed while he was studying at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen[14]

Friedrich began his formal study of art in 1790 as a private student of artist Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald in his home city, at which the art department is now named Caspar-David-Friedrich-Institut[15] in his honour. Quistorp took his students on outdoor drawing excursions; as a result, Friedrich was encouraged to sketch from life at an early age.[16] Through Quistorp, Friedrich met and was subsequently influenced by the theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten, who taught that nature was a revelation of God.[16] Quistorp introduced Friedrich to the work of the German 17th-century artist Adam Elsheimer, whose works often included religious subjects dominated by landscape, and nocturnal subjects.[17] During this period he also studied literature and aesthetics with Swedish professor Thomas Thorild. Four years later Friedrich entered the prestigious Academy of Copenhagen, where he began his education by making copies of casts from antique sculptures before proceeding to drawing from life.[18] Living in Copenhagen afforded the young painter access to the Royal Picture Gallery's collection of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. At the Academy he studied under teachers such as Christian August Lorentzen and the landscape painter Jens Juel. These artists were inspired by the Sturm und Drang movement and represented a midpoint between the dramatic intensity and expressive manner of the budding Romantic aesthetic and the waning neo-classical ideal. Mood was paramount, and influence was drawn from such sources as the Icelandic legend of Edda, the poems of Ossian and Norse mythology.[19]

Friedrich settled permanently in Dresden in 1798. During this early period, he experimented in printmaking with etchings[20] and designs for woodcuts which his furniture-maker brother cut. By 1804 he had produced 18 etchings and four woodcuts; they were apparently made in small numbers and only distributed to friends.[21] Despite these forays into other media, he gravitated toward working primarily with ink, watercolour and sepias. With the exception of a few early pieces, such as Landscape with Temple in Ruins (1797), he did not work extensively with oils until his reputation was more established.[22] Landscapes were his preferred subject, inspired by frequent trips, beginning in 1801, to the Baltic coast, Bohemia, the Krkonoše and the Harz Mountains.[23] Mostly based on the landscapes of northern Germany, his paintings depict woods, hills, harbors, morning mists and other light effects based on a close observation of nature. These works were modeled on sketches and studies of scenic spots, such as the cliffs on Rügen, the surroundings of Dresden and the river Elbe. He executed his studies almost exclusively in pencil, even providing topographical information, yet the subtle atmospheric effects characteristic of Friedrich's mid-period paintings were rendered from memory.[24] These effects took their strength from the depiction of light, and of the illumination of sun and moon on clouds and water: optical phenomena peculiar to the Baltic coast that had never before been painted with such an emphasis.[25]

Move to Dresden

The Tetschen Altar, or The Cross in the Mountains (1807). 115 × 110.5 cm. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden. Friedrich's first major work, the piece breaks with the traditions of representing the crucifixion in altarpieces by depicting the scene as a landscape.

Friedrich established his reputation as an artist when he won a prize in 1805 at the Weimar competition organised by the writer, poet, and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. At the time, the Weimar competition tended to draw mediocre and now long-forgotten artists presenting derivative mixtures of neo-classical and pseudo-Greek styles. The poor quality of the entries began to prove damaging to Goethe's reputation, so when Friedrich entered two sepia drawings—Procession at Dawn and Fisher-Folk by the Sea—the poet responded enthusiastically and wrote, "We must praise the artist's resourcefulness in this picture fairly. The drawing is well done, the procession is ingenious and appropriate... his treatment combines a great deal of firmness, diligence and neatness... the ingenious watercolour... is also worthy of praise."[26]

Friedrich completed the first of his major paintings in 1807, at the age of 34. The Cross in the Mountains, today known as the Tetschen Altar (Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden), is an altarpiece panel commissioned by the Countess of Thun for her family's chapel in Tetschen, Bohemia. It was to be one of the few commissions the artist received.[27] The altar panel depicts a Gipfelkreuz, or a gilded cross, in profile at the top of a mountain, alone, and surrounded by German and Austrian pine trees.[28] The cross reaches the highest point in the pictorial plane but is presented from an oblique and a distant viewpoint. Nature dominates the scene and for the first time in Christian art, an altarpiece showcases a landscape. According to the art historian Linda Siegel, the design of the altarpiece is the "logical climax of many earlier drawings of his which depicted a cross in nature's world."[27]

The work was first exhibited on Christmas Day, 1808.[27] Although it was generally coldly received, it was nevertheless Friedrich's first painting to receive wide publicity. The artist's friends publicly defended the work, while art critic Basilius von Ramdohr published a lengthy article rejecting Friedrich's use of landscape in such a context; he wrote that it would be "a veritable presumption, if landscape painting were to sneak into the church and creep onto the altar". Ramdohr fundamentally challenged the concept that pure landscape painting could convey explicit meaning.[29] Friedrich responded with a programme describing his intentions. In his 1809 commentary on the painting, he compared the rays of the evening sun to the light of the Holy Father.[30] The sinking of the sun suggests that the era when God revealed himself directly to man has passed. This statement marked the only time Friedrich recorded a detailed interpretation of his own work.

Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains by Caspar David Friedrich, between 1822 and 1823

Friedrich was elected a member of the Berlin Academy in 1810 following the purchase of two of his paintings by the Prussian Crown Prince.[31] Yet in 1816, he sought to distance himself from Prussian authority, and that June applied for Saxon citizenship. The move was unexpected by his friends, as the Saxon government of the time was pro-French, while Friedrich's paintings to date were seen as generally patriotic and distinctly anti-French. Nevertheless, with the aid of his Dresden-based friend Graf Vitzthum von Eckstädt, Friedrich attained not only citizenship, but in 1818, a place in the Saxon Academy as a member with a yearly dividend of 150 thalers.[32] Although he hoped to receive a full Professorship, it was never awarded him as, according to the German Library of Information, "it was felt that his painting was too personal, his point of view too individual to serve as a fruitful example to students."[33] Politics too may have played a role in the stalling of his career: Friedrich's decidedly Germanic choice of subject and costuming frequently clashed with the prevailing pro-French attitudes of the time.[34]


Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818). 90.5 × 71 cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Friedrich married Christiane Caroline Bommer in 1818, and on their honeymoon they visited relatives in Neubrandenburg and Greifswald. This painting celebrates the couple's union.[35]

On 21 January 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a dyer from Dresden.[31] The couple had three children, with their first, Emma, arriving in 1820. Physiologist and painter Carl Gustav Carus notes in his biographical essays that marriage did not impact significantly on either Friedrich's life or personality, yet his canvasses from this period, including Chalk Cliffs on Rügen—painted after his honeymoon—display a new sense of levity, while his palette is brighter and less austere.[36] Human figures appear with increasing frequency in the paintings of this period, which Siegel interprets as a reflection that "the importance of human life, particularly his family, now occupies his thoughts more and more, and his friends, his wife, and his townspeople appear as frequent subjects in his art."[37]

Around this time, the artist found support from two sources in Russia. In 1820, Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich, at the behest of his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, visited Friedrich's studio and returned to Saint Petersburg with a number of his paintings. The exchange marked the beginning of a patronage that continued for many years.[38] Not long thereafter, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, tutor to Alexander II, met Friedrich in 1821 and found in him a kindred spirit. For decades Zhukovsky helped Friedrich both by purchasing his work himself and by recommending his art to the royal family; his assistance toward the end of Friedrich's career proved invaluable to the ailing and impoverished artist. Zhukovsky remarked that his friend's paintings "please us by their precision, each of them awakening a memory in our mind."[39]

Friedrich was acquainted with Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810), another leading German painter of the Romantic period. He was also a friend of Georg Friedrich Kersting (1785–1847), who painted him at work in his unadorned studio, and of the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788–1857). Dahl was close to Friedrich during the artist's final years, and he expressed dismay that to the art-buying public, Friedrich's pictures were only "curiosities".[40] While the poet Zhukovsky appreciated Friedrich's psychological themes, Dahl praised the descriptive quality of Friedrich's landscapes, commenting that "artists and connoisseurs saw in Friedrich's art only a kind of mystic, because they themselves were only looking out for the mystic... They did not see Friedrich's faithful and conscientious study of nature in everything he represented".[39]

During this period Friedrich frequently sketched memorial monuments and sculptures for mausoleums, reflecting his obsession with death and the afterlife; he even created designs for some of the funerary art in Dresden's cemeteries. Some of these works were lost in the fire that destroyed Munich's Glass Palace (1931) and later in the 1945 bombing of Dresden.

Later life and death

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio (1819) Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Kersting portrays an aged Friedrich holding a maulstick at his canvas.
The grave of Caspar David Friedrich, Trinitatis-Friedhof, Dresden

Friedrich's reputation steadily declined over the final fifteen years of his life. As the ideals of early Romanticism passed from fashion, he came to be viewed as an eccentric and melancholy character, out of touch with the times. Gradually his patrons fell away.[41] By 1820, he was living as a recluse and was described by friends as the "most solitary of the solitary".[33] Towards the end of his life he lived in relative poverty and was increasingly dependent on the charity of friends.[23] He became isolated and spent long periods of the day and night walking alone through woods and fields, often beginning his strolls before sunrise.

In June 1835, Friedrich suffered his first stroke, which left him with minor limb paralysis and greatly reduced his ability to paint.[42] As a result, he was unable to work in oil; instead he was limited to watercolour, sepia and reworking older compositions.

Although his vision remained strong, he had lost the full strength of his hand. Yet he was able to produce a final 'black painting', Seashore by Moonlight (1835–36), described by Vaughan as the "darkest of all his shorelines, in which richness of tonality compensates for the lack of his former finesse".[43]

Symbols of death appeared in his other work from this period.[41] Soon after his stroke, the Russian royal family purchased a number of his earlier works, and the proceeds allowed him to travel to Teplitz—in today's Czech Republic—to recover.[43]

During the mid-1830s, Friedrich began a series of portraits and he returned to observing himself in nature. As the art historian William Vaughan has observed, however, "He can see himself as a man greatly changed. He is no longer the upright, supportive figure that appeared in Two Men Contemplating the Moon in 1819. He is old and stiff... he moves with a stoop".[44]

By 1838, he was capable only of working in a small format. He and his family were living in poverty and grew increasingly dependent for support on the charity of friends.[45]

Friedrich: Cemetery Entrance Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden

Friedrich died in Dresden on 7 May 1840, and was buried in Dresden's Trinitatis-Friedhof (Trinity Cemetery) east of the city centre (the entrance to which he had painted some 15 years earlier). The simple flat gravestone lies north-west of the central roundel within the main avenue.

By the time of his death, his reputation and fame were waning, and his passing was little noticed within the artistic community.[33] His artwork had certainly been acknowledged during his lifetime, but not widely. While the close study of landscape and an emphasis on the spiritual elements of nature were commonplace in contemporary art, his work was too original and personal to be well understood.[2] By 1838, his work no longer sold or received attention from critics; the Romantic movement had been moving away from the early idealism that the artist had helped found.

After his death, Carl Gustav Carus wrote a series of articles which paid tribute to Friedrich's transformation of the conventions of landscape painting. However, Carus' articles placed Friedrich firmly in his time, and did not place the artist within a continuing tradition.[46] Only one of his paintings had been reproduced as a print, and that was produced in very few copies.[47][48]


Landscape and the sublime

What the newer landscape artists see in a circle of a hundred degrees in Nature they press together unmercifully into an angle of vision of only forty-five degrees. And furthermore, what is in Nature separated by large spaces, is compressed into a cramped space and overfills and oversatiates the eye, creating an unfavorable and disquieting effect on the viewer.
 Caspar David Friedrich[49]

The visualisation and portrayal of landscape in an entirely new manner was Friedrich's key innovation. He sought not just to explore the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the classic conception, but rather to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature. Friedrich was instrumental in transforming landscape in art from a backdrop subordinated to human drama to a self-contained emotive subject.[49] Friedrich's paintings commonly employed the Rückenfigur—a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human.[50] Friedrich created the notion of a landscape full of romantic feeling—die romantische Stimmungslandschaft.[51] His art details a wide range of geographical features, such as rock coasts, forests, and mountain scenes. He often used the landscape to express religious themes. During his time, most of the best-known paintings were viewed as expressions of a religious mysticism.[52]

The Abbey in the Oakwood (1808–10). 110.4 × 171 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Albert Boime writes, "Like a scene from a horror movie, it brings to bear on the subject all the Gothic clichés of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries".[53]

Friedrich said, "The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead."[54] Expansive skies, storms, mist, forests, ruins and crosses bearing witness to the presence of God are frequent elements in Friedrich's landscapes. Though death finds symbolic expression in boats that move away from shore—a Charon-like motif—and in the poplar tree, it is referenced more directly in paintings like The Abbey in the Oakwood (1808–10), in which monks carry a coffin past an open grave, toward a cross, and through the portal of a church in ruins.

He was one of the first artists to portray winter landscapes in which the land is rendered as stark and dead. Friedrich's winter scenes are solemn and still—according to the art historian Hermann Beenken, Friedrich painted winter scenes in which "no man has yet set his foot. The theme of nearly all the older winter pictures had been less winter itself than life in winter. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was thought impossible to leave out such motifs as the crowd of skaters, the wanderer... It was Friedrich who first felt the wholly detached and distinctive features of a natural life. Instead of many tones, he sought the one; and so, in his landscape, he subordinated the composite chord into one single basic note".[51]

The Sea of Ice (1823–24), Kunsthalle Hamburg. This scene has been described as "a stunning composition of near and distant forms in an Arctic image".[55]

Bare oak trees and tree stumps, such as those in Raven Tree (c. 1822), Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (c. 1833), and Willow Bush under a Setting Sun (c. 1835), are recurring elements of Friedrich's paintings, symbolizing death.[56] Countering the sense of despair are Friedrich's symbols for redemption: the cross and the clearing sky promise eternal life, and the slender moon suggests hope and the growing closeness of Christ.[57] In his paintings of the sea, anchors often appear on the shore, also indicating a spiritual hope.[58] German literature scholar Alice Kuzniar finds in Friedrich's painting a temporality—an evocation of the passage of time—that is rarely highlighted in the visual arts.[59] For example, in The Abbey in the Oakwood, the movement of the monks away from the open grave and toward the cross and the horizon imparts Friedrich's message that the final destination of man's life lies beyond the grave.[60]

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1830–35). 34 × 44 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. A couple gaze longingly at nature. Dressed in "Old German" clothes, according to Robert Hughes they are "scarcely different in tone or modelling from the deep dramas of nature around them".[61]

With dawn and dusk constituting prominent themes of his landscapes, Friedrich's own later years were characterized by a growing pessimism. His work becomes darker, revealing a fearsome monumentality. The Wreck of the Hope—also known as The Polar Sea or The Sea of Ice (1823–24)—perhaps best summarizes Friedrich's ideas and aims at this point, though in such a radical way that the painting was not well received. Completed in 1824, it depicted a grim subject, a shipwreck in the Arctic Ocean; "the image he produced, with its grinding slabs of travertine-colored floe ice chewing up a wooden ship, goes beyond documentary into allegory: the frail bark of human aspiration crushed by the world's immense and glacial indifference."[62]

Friedrich's written commentary on aesthetics was limited to a collection of aphorisms set down in 1830, in which he explained the need for the artist to match natural observation with an introspective scrutiny of his own personality. His best-known remark advises the artist to "close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards."[63] He rejected the overreaching portrayals of nature in its "totality", as found in the work of contemporary painters like Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803–84) and Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839).

Loneliness and death

Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, by Carl Johann Baehr, 1836, New Masters Gallery, Dresden

Both Friedrich's life and art have at times been perceived by some to have been marked with an overwhelming sense of loneliness.[64] Art historians and some of his contemporaries attribute such interpretations to the losses suffered during his youth to the bleak outlook of his adulthood,[65] while Friedrich's pale and withdrawn appearance helped reinforce the popular notion of the "taciturn man from the North".[66][67]

Friedrich suffered depressive episodes in 1799, 1803–1805, c.1813, in 1816 and between 1824 and 1826. There are noticeable thematic shifts in the works he produced during these episodes, which see the emergence of such motifs and symbols as vultures, owls, graveyards and ruins.[68] From 1826 these motifs became a permanent feature of his output, while his use of color became more dark and muted. Carus wrote in 1929 that Friedrich "is surrounded by a thick, gloomy cloud of spiritual uncertainty", though the noted art historian and curator Hubertus Gassner disagrees with such notions, seeing in Friedrich's work a positive and life-affirming subtext inspired by Freemasonry and religion.[69]

Germanic folklore

Reflecting Friedrich's patriotism and resentment during the 1813 French occupation of the dominion of Pomerania, motifs from German folklore became increasingly prominent in his work. An anti-French German nationalist, Friedrich used motifs from his native landscape to celebrate Germanic culture, customs and mythology. He was impressed by the anti-Napoleonic poetry of Ernst Moritz Arndt and Theodor Körner, and the patriotic literature of Adam Müller and Heinrich von Kleist.[70] Moved by the deaths of three friends killed in battle against France, as well as by Kleist's 1808 drama Die Hermannsschlacht, Friedrich undertook a number of paintings in which he intended to convey political symbols solely by means of the landscape—a first in the history of art.

In Old Heroes' Graves (1812), a dilapidated monument inscribed "Arminius" invokes the Germanic chieftain, a symbol of nationalism, while the four tombs of fallen heroes are slightly ajar, freeing their spirits for eternity. Two French soldiers appear as small figures before a cave, lower and deep in a grotto surrounded by rock, as if farther from heaven.[58] A second political painting, Fir Forest with the French Dragoon and the Raven (c. 1813), depicts a lost French soldier dwarfed by a dense forest, while on a tree stump a raven is perched—a prophet of doom, symbolizing the anticipated defeat of France.[71]



Alongside other Romantic painters, Friedrich helped position landscape painting as a major genre within Western art. Of his contemporaries, Friedrich's style most influenced the painting of Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857). Among later generations, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) was strongly influenced by his work, and the substantial presence of Friedrich's works in Russian collections influenced many Russian painters, in particular Arkhip Kuindzhi (c. 1842–1910) and Ivan Shishkin (1832–98). Friedrich's spirituality anticipated American painters such as Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), Ralph Blakelock (1847–1919), the painters of the Hudson River School and the New England Luminists.[72]

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (1899). Woodcut. Munch Museum, Oslo

At the turn of the 20th century, Friedrich was rediscovered by the Norwegian art historian Andreas Aubert (1851–1913), whose writing initiated modern Friedrich scholarship,[23] and by the Symbolist painters, who valued his visionary and allegorical landscapes. The Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) would have seen Friedrich's work during a visit to Berlin in the 1880s. Munch's 1899 print The Lonely Ones echoes Friedrich's Rückenfigur (back figure), although in Munch's work the focus has shifted away from the broad landscape and toward the sense of dislocation between the two melancholy figures in the foreground.[73]

Friedrich's landscapes exercised a strong influence on the work of German artist Max Ernst (1891–1976), and as a result other Surrealists came to view Friedrich as a precursor to their movement.[23] In 1934, the Belgian painter René Magritte (1898–1967) paid tribute in his work The Human Condition, which directly echoes motifs from Friedrich's art in its questioning of perception and the role of the viewer.[74] A few years later, the Surrealist journal Minotaure featured Friedrich in a 1939 article by critic Marie Landsberger, thereby exposing his work to a far wider circle of artists. The influence of The Wreck of Hope (or The Sea of Ice) is evident in the 1940–41 painting Totes Meer by Paul Nash (1889–1946), a fervent admirer of Ernst.[75] Friedrich's work has been cited as an inspiration by other major 20th-century artists, including Mark Rothko (1903–70),[76] Gerhard Richter (b. 1932),[77][78] Gotthard Graubner[79][80][81][82] and Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945).[83] Friedrich's Romantic paintings have also been singled out by writer Samuel Beckett (1906–89), who, standing before Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, said "This was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know."[84]

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Sea of the Dead), 1940–41. 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Tate Gallery. Nash's work depicts a graveyard of crashed German planes comparable to The Sea of Ice (above). Nash described the image as a sea, even suggesting that the jagged forms were not metal but ice.[75]

In his 1961 article "The Abstract Sublime", originally published in ARTnews, the art historian Robert Rosenblum drew comparisons between the Romantic landscape paintings of both Friedrich and Turner with the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko. Rosenblum specifically describes Friedrich's 1809 painting The Monk by the Sea, Turner's The Evening Star[85] and Rothko's 1954 Light, Earth and Blue[86] as revealing affinities of vision and feeling. According to Rosenblum, "Rothko, like Friedrich and Turner, places us on the threshold of those shapeless infinities discussed by the aestheticians of the Sublime. The tiny monk in the Friedrich and the fisher in the Turner establish a poignant contrast between the infinite vastness of a pantheistic God and the infinite smallness of His creatures. In the abstract language of Rothko, such literal detail—a bridge of empathy between the real spectator and the presentation of a transcendental landscape—is no longer necessary; we ourselves are the monk before the sea, standing silently and contemplatively before these huge and soundless pictures as if we were looking at a sunset or a moonlit night."[87][88]

Critical opinion

Until 1890, and especially after his friends had died, Friedrich's work lay in near-oblivion for decades. Yet, by 1890, the symbolism in his work began to ring true with the artistic mood of the day, especially in central Europe. However, despite a renewed interest and an acknowledgment of his originality, his lack of regard for "painterly effect" and thinly rendered surfaces jarred with the theories of the time.[89]

I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.
 Caspar David Friedrich[90]
Ivan Shishkin, In the Wild North (1891). 161 x 118 cm. Kiev Museum of Russian Art

During the 1930s, Friedrich's work was used in the promotion of Nazi ideology,[91] which attempted to fit the Romantic artist within the nationalistic Blut und Boden.[7] It took decades for Friedrich's reputation to recover from this association with Nazism. His reliance on symbolism and the fact that his work fell outside the narrow definitions of modernism contributed to his fall from favour. In 1949, art historian Kenneth Clark wrote that Friedrich "worked in the frigid technique of his time, which could hardly inspire a school of modern painting", and suggested that the artist was trying to express in painting what is best left to poetry.[89][92] Clark's dismissal of Friedrich reflected the damage the artist's reputation sustained during the late 1930s.[89]

Friedrich's reputation suffered further damage when his imagery was adopted by a number of Hollywood directors, such as Walt Disney, built on the work of such German cinema masters as Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, within the horror and fantasy genres.[93] His rehabilitation was slow, but enhanced through the writings of such critics and scholars as Werner Hofmann, Helmut Börsch-Supan and Sigrid Hinz, who successfully rejected and rebutted the political associations ascribed to his work, and placed it within a purely art-historical context.[93] By the 1970s, he was again being exhibited in major galleries across the world, as he found favour with a new generation of critics and art historians.

Today, his international reputation is well established. He is a national icon in his native Germany, and highly regarded by art historians and art connoisseurs across the Western World. He is generally viewed as a figure of great psychological complexity, and according to Vaughan, "a believer who struggled with doubt, a celebrator of beauty haunted by darkness. In the end, he transcends interpretation, reaching across cultures through the compelling appeal of his imagery. He has truly emerged as a butterfly—hopefully one that will never again disappear from our sight".[94]


Friedrich was a prolific artist who produced more than 500 attributed works.[95] In line with the Romantic ideals of his time, he intended his paintings to function as pure aesthetic statements, so he was cautious that the titles given to his work were not overly descriptive or evocative. It is likely that some of today's more literal titles, such as The Stages of Life, were not given by the artist himself, but were instead adopted during one of the revivals of interest in Friedrich.[96] Complications arise when dating Friedrich's work, in part because he often did not directly name or date his canvases. He kept a carefully detailed notebook on his output, however, which has been used by scholars to tie paintings to their completion dates.[95]

See also


  1. Gaddis, John (2002), The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-506652-9
  2. 1 2 Vaughan 1980, p. 65
  3. Murray 2004, p. 338
  4. 1 2 Vaughan 2004, p. 7
  5. During an 1834 visit to Dresden; quoted in Vaughan 2004, p. 295
  6. Miller, Philip B. (Spring 1974), "Anxiety and Abstraction: Kleist and Brentano on Caspar David Friedrich", Art Journal, 33 (3): 205–210, doi:10.2307/775783, JSTOR 775783
  7. 1 2 Forster-Hahn, Françoise (March 1976), "Recent Scholarship on Caspar David Friedrich", The Art Bulletin, 58 (1): 113–116, doi:10.2307/3049469, JSTOR 3049469
  8. Pomerania had been divided between Sweden and Brandenburg-Prussia since 1648, and at the time of Caspar David's birth, it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon occupied the territory in 1806, and in 1815 all of Pomerania passed to Prussian sovereignty.Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, p. 12
  9. 1 2 Wolf 2003, p. 17
  10. The family was subsequently raised by their housekeeper and nurse, "Mutter Heide", who had a warm relationship with all of the Friedrich children.
  11. Vaughan 2004, p. 18
  12. Siegel 1978, p. 8
  13. Boime 1990, p. 512
  14. Kent, Neil (2004), Soul of the North: a Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries, 1700-1940, London: Reaktion Books, ISBN 1-86189-067-2
  15. "Caspar-David-Friedrich-Institut". 30 April 2012. Archived from the original on 24 April 2014. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  16. 1 2 Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, p. 12
  17. Siegel 1978, p. 7
  18. Vaughan 2004, p. 26
  19. Vaughan 2004, p. 29
  20. Vaughan 2004, p. 48
  21. Griffiths & Carey 1994, p. 206
  22. Vaughan 2004, p. 41
  23. 1 2 3 4 Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, p. 45
  24. Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, p. 106
  25. Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, p. 14
  26. Siegel 1978, pp. 43–44
  27. 1 2 3 Siegel 1978, pp. 55–56
  28. Koerner, Joseph Leo (2002). Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-86189-439-7.
  29. Vaughan 1980, p. 7
  30. Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, p. 116
  31. 1 2 Vaughan 1980, p. 101
  32. Vaughan 2004, pp. 165–166
  33. 1 2 3 German Library of Information. Caspar David Friedrich: His Life and Work. New York: German Library of Information, 1940. 38–39.
  34. Vaughan 2004, pp. 184–185
  35. Vaughan 2004, p. 203
  36. Börsch-Supan 1974, pp. 41–45
  37. 1 2 Siegel 1978, p. 114
  38. Updike, John. "Innerlichkeit and Eigentümlichkeit". The New York Review of Books, Volume 38, Number 5, 7 March 1991. Retrieved on 22 October 2008.
  39. 1 2 Vaughan 1980, p. 66
  40. Schmied 1995, p. 48
  41. 1 2 Vaughan 2004, p. 263
  42. Schmied 1995, p. 44
  43. 1 2 3 Vaughan 2004, pp. 300–302
  44. Vaughan 2004, pp. 295–296
  45. Guillaud, 128. Originally from Vaughan (1972).
  46. Vaughan 2004, p. 309
  47. Griffiths & Carey 1994, pp. 27, 207
  48. Although the French sculptor David D'Angers, who visited Friedrich in 1834, was moved by the devotional issues explored in the artist's canvasses. He exclaimed to Carus in 1834, "Friedrich! ... The only landscape painter so far to succeed in stirring up all the forces of my soul, the painter who has created a new genre: the tragedy of the landscape." In: Grewe, Cordula. "Heaven on Earth: Cordula Grewe on Caspar David Friedrich". Artforum International, Vol. 44, No. 9, May 2006. 133.
  49. 1 2 Mitchell, Timothy (September 1984), "Caspar David Friedrich's Der Watzmann: German Romantic Landscape Painting and Historical Geology", The Art Bulletin, 66 (3): 452–464, doi:10.2307/3050447, JSTOR 3050447
  50. Prettejohn, Elizabeth (2005). Beauty & Art, 1750–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 54–56. ISBN 0-19-280160-0.
  51. 1 2 3 Beenken, Hermann (April 1938), "Caspar David Friedrich", The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 72 (421): 171–175, JSTOR 867281
  52. Academic American Encyclopedia, Danbury: Grolier, 1989, p. 332, ISBN 0-7172-2024-9
  53. Boime 1990, p. 601
  54. Quoted in Börsch-Supan 1974, pp. 7–8
  55. Larisey, Peter. Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris's Life and Work. Dundurn, 1993. 14. ISBN 1-55002-188-5
  56. Johnston, Leppien & Monrad 1999, pp. 114, 117–119
  57. Börsch-Supan, Helmut (September 1972), "Caspar David Friedrich's Landscapes with Self-Portraits", The Burlington Magazine, 114 (834): 620–630, JSTOR 877126
  58. 1 2 3 Siegel, Linda (Spring 1974), "Synaesthesia and the Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich", The Art Journal, 33 (3): 196–204, JSTOR 775782
  59. Kuzniar, Alice (1989), "The Temporality of Landscape: Romantic Allegory and C. D. Friedrich", Studies in Romanticism, 28 (1): 69–93, doi:10.2307/25600760, ISSN 0039-3762, JSTOR 25600760
  60. Börsch-Supan 1974, pp. 84
  61. Hughes, Robert. "Force of nature". The Guardian, January 15, 2005. Retrieved on November 20, 2008.
  62. "The Awestruck Witness". Time Magazine, (28 October 1974), accessed 19 November 2008
  63. Vaughan 1980, p. 68
  64. Siegel 1978, p. 121
  65. Börsch-Supan 1974, p. 11
  66. Vaughan 1980, p. 64
  67. His letters, however, contain humour and self-irony, while the natural philosopher Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert wrote that Friedrich "was indeed a strange mixture of temperament, his moods ranging from the gravest seriousness to the gayest humour ... But anyone who knew only this side of Friedrich's personality, namely his deep melancholic seriousness, only knew half the man. I have met few people who have such a gift for telling jokes and such a sense of fun as he did, providing that he was in the company of people he liked." Quoted in Börsch-Supan 1974, pp. 16.
  68. Dahlenburg & Carsten 2005, p. 112
  69. Lüddemann, Stefan. "Glimpses of Mystery In a Sea of Fog. Essen’s Folkwang Museum reinterprets Caspar David Friedrich Archived 9 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine.". The Atlantic Times (Germany), May 2006. Retrieved on 27 November 2008.
  70. Kleist was the first member of the Romantic movement to discuss Friedrich in print. See: Siegel, Linda.
  71. The scene is an allusion to Act V, scene 3 of Kleist's Die Hermannsschlacht. Siegel 1978, pp. 87–88. See also: Siegel, Linda. "Synaesthesia and the Paintings of Caspar David Friedrich". Art Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 1974. 196–204.
  72. Epstein, Suzanne Latt (1964), The Relationship of the American Luminists to Caspar David Friedrich, New York: Columbia University, OCLC 23758262
  73. Vaughan 2004, p. 318
  74. Vaughan 2004, p. 320
  75. 1 2 Causey, Andrew (1980), Paul Nash, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 315, ISBN 0-19-817348-2
  76. Vaughan 2004, p. 331
  77. Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 173-78.
  78. "From Caspar David Friedrich to Gerhard Richter: German Paintings from Dresden". J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  79. According to Werner Hofmann, both Graubner and Friedrich created an aesthetics of monotony as a counterpart to the aesthetics of variety that was predominant before the nineteenth century. See "Kissenkunst, zerrissene Realität", Die Zeit, 19 December 1975.
  80. Raum der Stille im Landtag Nordrhein-Westfalen
  81. Sabine Schütz, "Color-Space Bodies: The Art of Gotthard Graubner", Arts Magazine, Volume 65, April 1991, pp. 49-53.
  82. Amine Haase, Andreas Vowinckel and Stephan von Wiese, Michael Buthe & Marcel Odenbach, exh. cat., Walter Phillips Gallery, 22 September–16 October 1983, p. 3.
  83. Alteveer, Ian. "Anselm Kiefer (Born 1945)" In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2008. Retrieved 16 November 2008. Altveer mentions a specific photograph by Kiefer inspired by Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
  84. Leach, Cristin. "Old Romantics Tug at the Heart Archived 10 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine.". The Sunday Times, 24 October 2004. Retrieved on 16 November 2008.
  85. Reproduction of Turner's The Evening Star here ". National Gallery, London. Retrieved on November 21, 2008.
  86. See also, Geldzahler (1969), 353. Reproduction of the Rothko can be found here .
  87. Rosenblum, Robert. "The Abstract Sublime". Reprinted in: Geldzahler, Henry. New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Exhibition catalog, 1969. Library of Congress card catalog number 71-87179. 353
  88. Rosenblum goes on to say, "Like the mystic trinity of sky, water and earth that, in the Friedrich and Turner appears to emanate from one source, the floating horizontal tiers of veiled light in the Rothko seem to conceal a total, remote presence that we can only intuit and never fully grasp. These infinite glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths."
  89. 1 2 3 Vaughan, William (September 1991), "Reviewed work(s): Caspar David Friedrich in seiner Zeit: Zeichnungen des Romantik und des Biedermeier by Hans Dickel; The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich + Painting and Drawings from the USSR by Sabine Rewald; Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner", The Burlington Magazine, 133 (1062): 626–628, JSTOR 884854
  90. Russell, John. "Art born in the fullness of age". The New York Times, 23 August 1987. Retrieved on 25 October 2008.
  91. Vaughan 2004, pp. 219–224
  92. Clark, Kenneth (2007), Landscape into Art, Gibb Press, p. 72, ISBN 1-4067-2824-1
  93. 1 2 Vaughan 2004, pp. 325–326
  94. Vaughan 2004, p. 332
  95. 1 2 Siegel 1978, p. 3
  96. "Caspar David Friedrich inventing romanticism". Retrieved on 21 October 2008.
  97. Vaughan 2004, p. 279
  98. Wolf 2003, p. 45
  99. Wolf 2003, p. 12
  100. Siegel 1978, p. 62


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