Monday, February 21, 2011

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswalk, Swedish Pomerania, on the Baltic Sea in 1798. His father was a strict Lutheran candle-maker and soap boiler. His mother died when Friedrich was seven. At the age of thirteen, he witnessed his brother fall through the ice of a frozen lake and drown. His sister died in 1782, while his second sister succumbed to typhus in 1791.

In 1790, Friedrich studied art with Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald. In 1794, Friedrich entered the Academy of Copenhagen, concentrating solely on understanding the intricacies of 'landscape painting.' In 1798 Friedrich moved to Dresden, the German center of the 'Romantic Movement'. His work was mainly naturalistic and topographical, with India ink, watercolor and sepia ink. Landscapes were his preferred subject. In 1801 he began taking trips to the Baltic coast, Bohemia, the Riesen Mountains and the Harz Mountains. “The subtle atmospheric effects characteristic of Friedrich's maturity were rendered from memory. These effects would eventually be most concerned with the depiction of light, of the illumination of sun and moon on clouds and water, optical phenomena specific to the Baltic coast and that had never before been painted (, 2010).” Friedrich was gifted as an observer and interpreter of landscape, “he was particularly adept at expressing nature through the eyes of a pious believer, ‘The divine is everywhere, even in a grain of sand’, he wrote (Gifford, K., 2010)”.

Friedrich produced his first major painting, The Cross in the Mountains, now known as The Tetschen Altar, at the age of 34. This painting was of an altarpiece panel which depicted a crucified Christ in the midst of natural surroundings. This painting became a trendsetter because it was the first time an altarpiece was painted with a landscape. Friedrich’s friends were said to have publicly defended him against critics whom rejected this painting. Friedrich wrote a program providing his interpretation of the picture. His commentary on the painting “compared the rays of the evening sun to the light of the Holy Father. That the sun is sinking suggests that the time when God reveals himself directly to man is past (, 2010).” Least known of Friedrich’s works are his small and surprisingly sunny scenes. Friedrich had an interest in clouds and studied them often, which you can see in many of his paintings. Friedrich brought a new way of seeing landscape to Romanticism. Even though snow in paintings was not a new idea, Friedrich saw it differently than other artists before him, “close to silent death or miraculous rebirth, never as a rococo confectioner’s seasonal sugaring (, 2010).”

Another work of Friedrich’s was “Abbey under Oak Trees.” This painting was centered on a death scene. During the time he painted this, Friedrich’s work was of a Mysticism style with a mixture of Realism and Romanticism. In his landscape paintings inconsequential figures seem contemplative, enamored by the vastness of nature, and transfixed in its enigma. In his painting, “Monk by the Sea,” a lonely figure is painted alone on the shore of the open sea.

Megaliths, as symbols in the landscape, were significant and meaningful to many Romantic painters and poets. Megaliths are large stone structures or monuments, possibly used for burial. In Germany, paintings with megaliths as a motive gradually increased during the first half of the nineteenth century, and peaked just after Friedrich's death then pretty much ended around 1870. Megaliths make perfect expressions of Romantic melancholy as well as symbols of human vanity and death.
Nostalgia and sentimentalism were a common characteristic of German Romanticism. Subjective feelings and emotions, sensual and bodily experiences were emphasized against reason, science, and authority. Romanticism was a revolution against the optimistic Enlightenment idea of humans being more powerful than nature and the belief that reason would overcome. The Romantic Movement rejected the 18th century’s orderly imposition on nature. Romanticism preferred the wide open wildernesses of an indifferent and unpredictable nature with endless forests, towering clouds, and deafening waterfalls from icy giant peaks (Hunt, 2006).
Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs on Fügen portrays the immensity of incredible nature away from human pretense and small achievements. Vertical white jagged cliffs polarize the flat horizontality of the blue sea where tiny boats float unaware of their frailty. A few humans point or crawl to the edge of the abyss peering down dizzy drops they cannot possibly go. The far ocean stretches to the highest edge of the canvas. The oceans that once beckoned to explorers, now look deep and daunting (Hunt, 2006).

The recognition of Friedrich as an artist began with an 1805 prize at a Weimar competition. On January 21, 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer, the daughter of a dyer from Dresden. The couple had three children. Friedrich’s canvasses from this period had female figures, the palettes were brighter, and the symmetry and soberness were lessened. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted after his honeymoon, which is a good example of his change in style. After marriage, Friedrich incorporated larger figures into his canvasses. The subject of The Woman at the Window is the artist’s wife.

In June 1835, Friedrich suffered a stroke that caused partial limb paralysis. After the stroke his ability to paint was reduced to only painting in water color and sepia, and symbols of death appeared frequently in his work. By 1838, he was almost incapable of artistic work. He died in 1840.

With Romantic art, the artists were allowed and encouraged to express their raw emotions in their art. This is true with Friedrich. In his early paintings he revealed his curiosity in clouds, passion for nature landscapes, and mystery through his dawn or dusk illuminations. When he met his wife, his paintings seemed to show more feminine figures. After his stroke, he portrayed morbid, despair, and death in his paintings. Friedrich experienced so much tragedy early on in life, it is no wonder he was such a great romantic artist.

References (2010). Retrieved from

Eisler, Colin. (2010). Gothic Romantics: Caspar David Friedrich and His Following. Retrieved from

Gifford, Katya. (22 May 2010). Caspar David Friedrich. Retrieved from

Hunt, Patrick. (2006). Goya, Friedrich and Romanticism: Reification of Nature. Retrieved from

Labedzki, Annette. (2010). The German Romantic Landscape Painter – Caspar David

Friedrich. Retrieved from