Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Melancholic, sensitive and devout, the 19th century German artist Caspar David Friedrich was one of the best landscape artists in the Romantic style. Born near the Baltic, he settled in Dresden, where he focused exclusively on the spiritual significance of nature, being inspired by the silence of the forest, the effect of light (especially sunrise, dusk, and moonlight) and the seasons. His atmospheric landscape painting captures a hitherto undiscovered spiritual element in nature, giving his work an emotional edge which has never been surpassed. A devotee of plein air painting, he produced over 500 pictures, drawings, etchings and woodcuts. For their background and context, see: German Art, 19th Century. Among the most famous landscape paintings by Caspar David Friedrich are: Winter Landscape (1811, National Gallery, London); Chalk Cliffs on Rugen (1818, Museum Oskar Reinhart, Switzerland); The Sea of Ice (182324, Kunsthalle Hamburg); and The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) Kunsthalle, Hamburg.
Sixth of ten children, Friedrich was born into a strict Lutheran family in Greifswald, Pomerania, on the Baltic coast of Germany. He experienced much tragedy at an early age. By the age of 13 he had lost his mother and a sister, and witnessed the drowning of his younger brother. These experiences had a huge impact on Friedrich's already piously sensitive nature, resulting in a deep spiritual attachment to nature.
Friedrich's formal art training, which began in 1790 at the University of Greifswald, involved outdoor painting and drawing classes, where students were encouraged to sketch from life. He was also influenced by the theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten, who taught that nature was a divine revelation, and by the melancholic Mannerist German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) - an inspiration to both Rubens and Rembrandt - whose lyrical landscapes and nocturnal scenes showed great sensitivity to the effects of light. Four years later Friedrich enrolled at the Copenhagen Academy of Fine Art, where he further improved his drawing from life. His stay in Copenhagen also gave him the opportunity to study the collection of 17th-century landscape painting by Dutch Realist artists - such as Aelbert Cuyp and Jacob van Ruisdael - at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.
In 1798, Friedrich settled in Dresden. At first he focused on printmaking, producing etchings and designs for woodcuts, while in his painting activities he confined himself to inks and watercolours, with the odd exception in oils like Landscape with Temple in Ruins (1797). His specialist painting genre was, and remained, landscapes, although in later years he devoted a good deal of his time on portrait art and self-portraits.
His landscape subjects - largely drawn from the scenery of northern Germany - encompassed woods, forests, hills, and the differing effects of early morning and evening light, mostly based on pencil drawings. He became especially skilled in capturing the reflection of sun and moon on clouds and water.
Friedrich achieved his first public success as a painter by winning a prize in the 1805 Weimar competition organised by the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After this came controversy when one of his first landscapes in the medium of oil painting - The Cross in the Mountains (1808, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden) or The Tetschen Altar - was painted as an altarpiece. The work, depicting a distant view of the crucified Christ at the top of a mountain, alone and surrounded by nature, was commissioned by the Countess of Thun for a family chapel in Bohemia, and Friedrich's decision to offer a landscape as a devotional painting was considered scandalous. However, it clearly signalled Friedrich's main preoccupation as an artist, which was to present the divine quality of nature.
In 1810, Friedrich was elected a member of the Berlin Academy of Art, and in 1818, a member of the Saxon Academy. In the same year, at the age of 44 he married the 25 year old Caroline Bommer: a marriage which reportedly brought him much happiness and comfort. In this, one should note that Friedrich suffered continually from bouts of depression, notably in 1799, 1813, 1816 and between 1803 and 1805, and 1824-1826. These mental disturbances had a visible impact on his painting, and from 1826 his use of colour in his paintings became darker and more muted.
Meantime, despite occasional controversies, Friedrich's fame was beginning to spread. In 1820, the Russian Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich paid a personal visit to Friedrich's studio and purchased a number of paintings - patronage which was to continue for many years. The following year, Vasily Zhukovsky, tutor to Czar Alexander II, met Friedrich and was so impressed that he began recommending his art at the Russian royal court. These Russian patrons would later provide much needed assistance when Friedrich fell into poverty.
Unfortunately, as the attraction of Romanticism
faded, to be replaced by more realist interpretations of both nature and
life in general, in line with modernist trends across society, Friedrich's
art began to lose its appeal, and
during the final 15 years of his life he came to be regarded as somewhat
eccentric and old-fashioned. As his patrons deserted him, his fortunes
declined and be became increasingly dependent on the charity of friends.
Exceptionally gifted as an observer and interpreter of nature, Friedrich used painting as a means of expressing his highly personal and emotional response to the natural world - a world he saw as reflecting a divine presence. For him, sunlight was no less than the light of God. His individualistic lifestyle - he spent long periods of time walking alone through forests and fields, often starting before sunrise - coupled with his keen observation, melancholic outlook and painterly skill in both composition and the precise use of colour, allowed him to create uniquely evocative landscapes. One of his greatest achievements as an artist was his ability to create emotionally-charged views which help to connect the viewer with the spirituality of nature. His depiction of various light forms, notably sunrise and moonlight was remarkable, as was his ability to convey the absolute stillness and solitude of the forest. The art historian Hermann Beenken once said that Friedrich painted winter scenes in which "no man has yet set his foot."
Though based on studies of nature, most of his paintings were composed in his studio, where he relied on deep contemplation to conjure up images for his canvases. To dramatise his view-paintings, such as his series of figures contemplating the moon, he made frequent use of the Ruckenfigur- a person seen from behind, who is contemplating the view. Nearly all his pictures contained motifs and symbols, typically concerning life, death and the impermanence of man.
His contribution to the history of art was the portrayal of landscape not simply as an object of beauty but as a romantic (romantische Stimmungslandschaft) and spiritual, if not mystical, experience. In so doing, he - along with JMW Turner - re-positioned landscape painting as a major independent genre within Western art.
Friedrich's symbolic and anti-classical work influenced many contemporaries, notably Johann Christian Dahl (17881857), as well as later artists such as Arnold Bocklin (18271901), the Russian painters Arkhip Kuindzhi (18421910) and Ivan Shishkin (183298). Friedrich's mystical approach was a precursor to several American art groups, such as the Hudson River School of New England - exemplified by the works of Thomas Cole (1801-48) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) - and the mini-movements of Luminism and the Rocky Mountain School. His painting has also inspired a number of 20th century painters, such as Surrealist Max Ernst (18911976) and the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko (190370). And the Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett (190689) confessed that Friedrich's work Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon was the source of his dramatic masterpiece Waiting for Godot.
Revered by art historians and collectors throughout the West, Friedrich is now seen as one of the greatest and most original view painters of the early 19th century and a major influence on the development of Western landscape art.
Works by Caspar David Friedrich hang in the world's best art museums, as can be seen from the following list of selected paintings.
- The Cross in the Mountains (1807) Gemaldegalerie,