Understanding The Art of Caspar David Friedrich Through These 8 Artworks

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March 29, 2020

For five decades, Romanticism was a dominant cultural phenomenon that spanned through various European countries throughout the first half of the 18th century. It affected not only writers and also artists but philosophers, scientists, and politicians. At the core of the Romantic enchantment stood individualism, along with the glorification of nature and the ideals from the past primarily the medieval period.

The followers of this movement rejected modernity - the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, the technological novelties of the Industrial Revolution, and the scientific rationalization of nature. Romanticism was embraced by then-emerging nation-states and was further instrumentalized by the reactionary right-wing discourse in the first half of the 20th century, however, it didn't change the fact that it contributed much to culture and science.

The most dominant Romantic currents were developed in England, France, and Germany. The German variety started forming early, coincided with Weimar Classicism and was characterized by humor, and beauty. The first generation of German Romantics found the inspiration in the Middle Ages which they perceived as a simpler period of integrated culture; however, the latter Romantics focused more on the tension between every day and the irrational or supernatural visions of creative genius.

The leit motif of German Romanticism was the solitary figure turned towards the landscape, an embodiment of the human desire to understand nature, and is the main characteristic that differentiates German from French and British variety.

The Art of Caspar David Friedrich

The lead German painter who continually depicted the solitary figure or in German "Rückenfigur" and explored the domains of the landscape as a genre was Caspar David Friedrich. This notable figure created an impeccable oeuvre centered on the majestic depictions of natural surroundings inhabited by wandering figures searching for the inner piece from a diminished perspective. The contemplative quality was reached by the artist with the close observation of natural light.

Caspar David Friedrich emerged as a painter at the time Europe was rapidly shifting in social and political sense; a time when a growing disappointment with materialistic society was transforming to a new appreciation of spirituality. Therefore, the natural world was perceived and depicted by the artists as "a divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization."

To bring you closer the mentioned characteristics of German romanticism that were best presented by Caspar David Friedrich, we decided to feature eight of his memorable works throughout his lifetime.

landscape work germany works painter works landscapesEditors’ Tip: Caspar David Friedrich

Now available in a new format, this beautifully illustrated volume on the controversial nineteenth-century Romantic artist addresses his modern critics while deepening our appreciation for his singular genius. "A painting must stand as a painting, made by human hand," wrote Caspar David Friedrich, "not seek to disguise itself as Nature." One of his generation’s most popular painters, Friedrich imagined landscapes of powerful beauty and spirituality from within the confines of his studios. This breathtaking monograph, filled with glorious reproductions and details of his paintings, argues for Friedrich’s reputation as a sublime artist and interpreter of nature.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, circa 1817, detail. Oil on canvas. Height: 98 cm (38.5″); Width: 74 cm (29.1″). Collection Kunsthalle Hamburg. All images via Creative Commons.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

The first Friedrich painting on our top list is the iconic Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer) or Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape made by the artist in 1818. It is considered one of Friedrich’s most representative paintings and one of the masterpieces of Romanticism, now held at Kunsthalle Hamburg in Germany.

The painting depicts a young man standing on a cliff with his back turned to the viewer. Dressed elegantly, with a walking stick in his hand and hair caught in the wind, this figure seems to represent a new youth that wants to feel free of conventions and the society by plunging into the wilderness.

Since it is composed of various elements from the surrounding localities such as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxony and Bohemia, the painting honors the beauty of nature while symbolizing the contemplation and deep thinking typical for young intellectuals at the begging of the 19th century.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, circa 1817. Oil on canvas. Height: 98 cm (38.5″); Width: 74 cm (29.1″). Collection Kunsthalle Hamburg.

The Cross in the Mountains (The Tetschen Altar)

Cross in the Mountains, also known as the Tetschen Altar, was made ten years before Wanderer above the Sea of Fog; it is important in historical terms since Friedrich broke the conventions of landscape genre by incorporating Christian iconography. The religious painting had the prime spot in the hierarchy of genres, meaning that the artist’s intervention was unprecedented at the time and caused a running debate among the proponents of the new German Romanticism and Neoclassicism.

The painting features a silhouette of a golden crucifixion of Jesus Christ on a rock atop a mountain surrounded by pine trees in the lower plane. The dramatic atmosphere was achieved with a specific light casting the whole site with the sun rising or setting.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - Cross in the Mountains (altarpiece Tetschen), 1807/1808. Oil on canvas, 115 × 110.5 cm (45.2 × 43.5″). Collection Galerie Neue Meister.

Morning Mist in the Mountains

This painting was also made by Friedrich in 1808, but in a more simpler manner than the previous one, burdened by the religious content. Truth be told, Morning Mist in the Mountains, as it is called, perfectly illustrates Friedich’s fascination with nature, a place of refuge, where one can transcend in the piece, far from every day of civilization.

Pine trees and rocky mountaintops coated in fog present Friedrich's ideals of the landscape, the majestic holiness of nature, the embodiment of the God himself. This spiritual component of the work was described by the artist:

When a landscape is covered in fog, it appears larger, more sublime, and heightens the strength of the imagination and excites expectation, rather like a veiled woman. The eye and fantasy feel themselves more attracted to the hazy distance than to that which lies near and distant before us.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - Morning mist in the mountains, 1808. Oil on canvas. Height: 71 cm (27.9″); Width: 104 cm (40.9″). Collection Heidecksburg.

The Monk by the Sea

The Monk by the Sea is another Caspar David Friedrich painting made during the same period as the past few works on our list. Nevertheless, it takes an important place in his entire oeuvre since it marked the beginning of the artist’s international acclaim.

The vast sky dominates the composition centered on a small figure of a monk observing the blue-gray sky and green sea with his back turned to the viewer. This canvas depicts the existential thoughts and humility of the figure accentuated with large expanses of color. The viewer is able to experience an array of emotions suggested by the artist and to extend to the narrative with their own interpretation.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - The Monk by the Sea, between 1808 and 1810. Oil on canvas. Length: 171.5 cm (67.5″); Height: 110 cm (43.3″). Collection Alte Nationalgalerie.

The Sea of Ice

The painting The Sea of Ice or The Wreck of Hope was made by Caspar David Friedrich between 1823 and 1824. This iconic depiction of a broken ice-sheet with a piece of a shipwreck peeking out of it exemplifies the artist’s mature phase and stands as an homage to the expeditions to the North Pole that happened during that period.

The two titles referred to this particular and another older work by Friedrich which is lost (that painting was shown in 1822 at the Dresden Academy exhibition under the title A Wrecked Ship off the Coast of Greenland in the Moonlight. Own Invention). This one was exhibited for the first time in 1824 at the Prague Academy exhibition under the title An Idealized Scene of an Arctic Sea, with a Wrecked Ship on the Heaped Masses of Ice. Interestingly so, it was described as Ice Picture. The Disaster-stricken North Pole Expedition in Friedrich's estate.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - The Sea of Ice, between 1823 and 1824. Oil on canvas. Height: 96.7 cm (38″); Width: 126.9 cm (49.9″). Collection Kunsthalle Hamburg.

Chalk Cliffs of Rügen

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was produced by Friedrich probably the same year he got married to Christiane Caroline Bommer, who was about 20 years younger. During their honeymoon in the summer of 1818, the couple visited relatives in Neubrandenburg and Greifswald and they visited a nearby island of Rügen.

That is why this painting is perceived as a celebration of their matrimony. The painting features three figures gazing at the chalk cliffs of the Stubbenkammer, enjoying the beautiful site.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - Chalk Cliffs at Ruegen, between circa 1818 and circa 1819. Oil on canvas. Height: 90.5 cm (35.6″); Width: 71 cm (27.9″). Collection Kunst Museum Winterthur

The Abbey in the Oak Wood

The Abbey in the Oakwood was made by Caspar David Friedrich during his fruitful years between 1809 and 1810 in Dresden; it debuted together with the painting The Monk by the Sea at the Prussian Academy of Arts exhibition of 1810 and was positioned beneath it according to Friedrich's instructions. Both paintings were purchased by king Frederick Wilhelm III for his collection after the exhibition and today they hang next to each other in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

The Abbey in the Oakwood nicely illustrates the artist’s interest in the existential matters; the notion of life and death is typical for the Romantic aesthetic saturated with melancholy. The painting is centered on the image of an old abbey, with a group of figures entering inside with a coffin.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1810. Oil on canvas. Height: 110.5 cm (43.5″); Width: 171 cm (67.3″). Collection Alte Nationalgalerie.

The Stages of Life

The last Freidrich painting on our list was thought to be made in 1834, just five years before his death. It depicts an idyllic, yet allegorical scene set on a seashore with an older man turning his back to the viewer, walking towards two adults and two children on a hill overlooking a harbor.

The whole composition of The Stages of Life naturally indicates different periods of human existence, the end of a journey, and the certainty of death. The figures were identified as the artist and his family, while the depicted site  is located at Utkiek, near Friedrich's birthplace in northeastern Germany.

Featured image: Caspar David Friedrich - The life stages, circa 1834. Oil on canvas. Height: 72.5 cm (28.5″); Width: 94 cm (37″). Collection Museum der bildenden Künste.