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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Topics in Western Art: Romanticism and Romantic Art: Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)

By Alexandra Jopp

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), a major figure in the German Romantic movement, was born in Pomerania, studied in Copenhagen, and later settled in Dresden. Pomeranian landscapes are depicted in many of his works: the sandy beaches along the Baltic seashore, the meadows, the forests, and of course the sea. Friedrich was well known for his melancholy pictures, often times depicting solitude and contemplation. His striking imagery, radical sense of design and understanding the nature and its variety of moods have made his art far beyond our comprehension. It seems Friedrich wished to convey a sense of mystery and enigma. Friedrich was indeed enigmatic and seemed to delve into the human spirit and the sub-conscious of the human being. His desire was to couple man with nature and show the symbiotic relationship between the two. Rewald supports this notion by asserting that Friedrich was:

One of the European artists who created a new awareness of nature and made landscape painting one of the most fertile genres of the nineteenth century. Friedrich’s landscapes usually adhere to a severe underlying symmetry. They are also relatively empty (p.12).

Swans in the Reeds, 1832.

On The Sailing Boat (1819).

The feeling of emptiness penetrates all of Friedrich’s work and leaves the viewer contemplating his or her own existence as it relates to the painting.

During some of his early years while studying in Dresden, “…Friedrich worked on a variety of subjects, including plants, rocks, ruins and landscapes. Three drawings dating from the years 1799—1800 deal with the so-called wanderer theme: Cottage with Wanderers, Landscape with Wanderer, and Forest with Resting Wanderer (Siegel 23). These drawings appear to form a trilogy and perhaps tell the viewer something about Friedrich himself. This idea is supported in the picture entitled Forest with Resting Wanderer, the most poetic drawing of the trilogy with a lonely small figure resting with his back to the viewer and his head bent in deep thought; lost in contemplation of the world of nature. This picture conveys Friedrich’s hallmark style of feelings of loneliness, melancholy, and solitude in nature. Man placed respectively as being tiny compared to the immenseness of nature; lost in silent communication with the universe and thus becoming one with nature. Landscape would remain the main subject of Friedrich’s paintings while working in Dresden, Germany. His paintings epitomized pessimism, loneliness, suffering and a sense of nature versus humankind. Friedrich’s main goal for his paintings was to bring the human being and spirit into union with nature.

The Tree of Crows.
1822, Louvre.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, (1818). 90.5 × 71 cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland.

Examples of Friedrich’s Paintings

The following section will interpret and analyze seven key pictures representing Friedrich’s work during his lifetime and will explore the background of each picture and their artistic styles.

Picture 1: Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1819

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1819.

One of his most famous motifs was that of two intimate figures, seen from behind, gazing at the moon Friedrich painted three versions of this theme, one of which—Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Monrad 23). At first glance, this picture bears the normal characteristics of Friedrich’s work, involving man in communion with nature. However, this picture is asymmetrical, and the landscape relatively crowded.
In the left hand side of the picture, two men dressed in blue are noticeable. The Norwegian painter, Dahl, who believed that the two figures represented two of Friedrich’s pupils, his brother-in-law Christian Wilhelm Bommer and August Heinrich (Qtd. in Rewald 14). However, this fact seems to be disputed by Vaughn who contends that the picture featured Friedrich himself (on the right) (“Friedrich” 158). Whoever the two are, they seem to admire the light of the setting moon, which floats across the night sky. Moonlight shines upon the rocky uphill path that is lined by a fir tree and uprooted dead oak, a large rock, and a broken branch. The moon appears in the center of the picture in full view. The two figures are seen from the back so that the viewer can identify them with nature. According to Rewald, “pensive foreground figures were among Friedrich’s favorite motifs… [and people were]…usually seen from the back.. [in order to create]… the Romantic sense of yearning” (30). Painting figures with their backs to the viewer was a well-known artist’s technique during the Romantic period. It is interesting to note that Friedrich’s figures do not look up at the sky but rather look slightly above the moon or they look down, which accentuates their state of self-expression. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a contemporary of Friedrich’s, seems to describe the mood of this painting. He wrote: “Why has looking at the moon become so beneficiary, so soothing and so sublime? Because the moon remains purely an object of contemplation, not of the will. Furthermore, the moon is sublime, and moves us sublimely because it stays aloof from all our earthly activities…” (Rewald 12). In this painting, landscape and figures assume equal importance. The size of the people is very large compared to other people painted by Friedrich. Their presence contributes to the symbolic meaning of the picture.

Picture 2: Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1824

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1824.
According to Rewald, “Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) [once] said that this image of two friends captivated by the magic of a moonlit night” (33). The subject of the moon was popular during the Romantic Period. The moon continued to captivate Friedrich throughout his life.
This painting is slightly different from some of his other moon motifs. The most obvious difference is in the change of the title from two men to a man and a woman. Another difference that is quite apparent is the distance between the two figures in the picture. Compared to the two men portrayed in the moon scene, there appears to be a greater distance between the man and the woman. In this picture, the woman’s hand seems to simply rest on the man’s shoulder. Standing stiff, the man and woman serve as pictorial devices for Romantics’ sense of longing and yearning. Rewald suggests that the two figures portrayed in the scene are none other then “Friedrich and his wife Caroline” (33).

The use of light also appears to be quite different between the first moon picture and the 2nd. While the painting from 1819 has a brown sky with a halo moon, the sky in the picture representing the man and woman is purple, indicating that it is early in the evening. This has the effect of giving less visual attention to the moon. It also creates a striking difference between the foreground and luminous background of the painting. The same elements such as the uphill path, an oak tree and the evergreen fir tree are present as was in the first picture featuring two men. The perspective of this painting appears to change from one picture to the next, with the fir tree appearing closer in the picture of the two men and further away in the picture of the man and woman. Similar to the 1819 picture, the man’s right hand remains in the same position as in the previous painting yet the man’s walking stick is absent in his later picture.

Picture 3: Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1830
Caspar David Friedrich (German, Greifswald 1774–1840 Dresden)
Two Men Contemplating the Moon
ca. 1825–30
In the third variant of Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Friedrich reintroduces the two men. This painting has more similarities with the one that had been drawn in Dresden in 1819 with the exception of how he uses light. In this painting his sky is transparent and light. The main features remain the same, such as the two men, the narrow path, the dead oak tree, the rock and the broken-off branch. This contrasts with the picture of the man and woman, where all of these elements were missing. According to critique, Friedrich did not bother with any under drawing in this picture, and he painted so fluidly so that the forms are considerably less detailed than in the other two versions. According to Rewald, “suffused with rose-mauve light, this last version conveys the greatest sense of serenity” (34).

This painting is very realistic and romantic and belongs to the same subject category as the picture “Moon Watchers”. These pictures capture the detail of a dead oak tree with immense branches and “moss-covered” roots. The entire landscape involves atmosphere and light. The color changes in the sky can be seen to change from rust to a rose color in between the version of the pictures (Rewald). Both the figures and the evergreen fir tree look alive while other elements such as the dark rocks, dead oak and a cut-off tree looks desolate. The second picture, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, uses a contrast between the ground, which is painted in dark colors with a tinge of yellow, to the light sky, which is characterized by the use of purple and yellow. Friedrich changes the light and even the color scheme, with a version in deep nighttime blacks. However, the shape of trees stays put, even down to a beautifully observed pattern of roots. Friedrich seems to convey mysteries to the viewers of his paintings, and in this case, leaves the viewer contemplating the figures that are staring out into the abyss. These paintings leave the viewer with a romantic feeling and the vastness of nature.

Picture 4: Moonrise over the Sea, 1822.

Moonrise over the Sea, 1822
Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774–1840)
Oil on canvas; 21 5/8 x 28 in. (54.9 x 71.1 cm)
Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Friedrich enjoyed painting the area known as Pomerania, a region located between East Germany and Poland. This area comprises the southern coastland encompassing a part of the Baltic Sea. Friedrich dedicated much of his time depicting landscapes such as sandy beaches along the shore of the Baltic, lonely ships approaching in the harbor, and the wide expanse of the open sea. His painting Moonrise over the Sea combined all of these elements. Friedrich often times painted the calm surface of the sea. The sea contrasts with the warm tonalities of the sun, where the full moon is hidden in violet, yellow and blue clouds; indicating an approaching storm.
Moonrise over the Sea depicts two women, one of whom was probably the artist’s wife, and a man sitting on a rock on the seashore gazing out upon the water at the transparent horizontal line. Two sailboats seem to be approaching from a long voyage. This picture is somewhat less focused on the “meaning of life” motifs that Friedrich painted in some of his other works (e.g. Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) or the seascape Monk by the Sea, which seems to symbolize the line between life and death. This picture also focuses much more on dreams and expectations of people, as symbolized by the approaching ships and the anticipation of the people on the shoreline. Similar to other works by Friedrich, we cannot see their faces of the figures but can imagine that their excitement.
Picture 5: Monk by the Sea, 1809-1810
Caspar David Friedrich
Monk by the Sea c.1809
Courtesy bpk Berlin/Jeorg P Anders/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Oil on canvas
110x171.5 cm

The image of a monk standing by an empty sea soon became an icon of German Romanticism. However, in the twentieth century the 'Caspar David Friedrich effect' underwent various interpretations, including absorption into Nazi art, and compared to the "abstract sublime" of American Colour Field painting.
Monk by the Sea by Friedrich captures the spectator’s attention with an immense sea that dominates the landscape. This is perhaps Friedrich’s greatest seashore picture. Friedrich’s use of lines is quite simple in this picture yet elegant. According to Joseph Leo Koerner, Friedrich’s uses diagonal lines in such a way that the “... foreground and background are set against each other as horizontal versus vertical, figure versus ground, finitude versus infinitude and detailed treatment versus generalized” (119).
In addition, as we can see Friedrich achieved infinity between two horizontal lines that divide the line of the seashore and the line of the horizon. The horizon is very low which makes the sky to dominate in the picture. Friedrich also paid close attention to the sky, since he was a very religious man and painted the sky in such a way as to reach transcendence with his spirit. It also seems that the sky is painted in much more dense colors than the sand, providing for additional contrasts between the foreground and the background. The colors are especially important, as they provide warmth to the picture; the sand is gray-white; the sea is green-black; the sky is blue-gray-white. The sea and sky fuse together to create an ethereal feeling with a hint of romanticism. According to Siegel, “there is silencing, a forgetting of all existence, when we feel as if we had lost everything; a night in our soul, when no glimmer of a star, not even rotten log gives us light…Now I looked straight ahead, quiet and lonely” (p. 136). Combined with the image of the monk, the total image conveys a sense of isolation and loneliness.

Ultimately, the artist leaves some ambivalence in the picture, in essence forcing the viewer of the picture to look out among the seascape as the monk is. In essence, Friedrich attempted to transcend our physical world and the world of the soul.
Picture 6: Abbey in the Oak Forest, 1809

Abbey in the Oak Forest, 1809-10: Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin
Exhibited in Berlin, this is perhaps one of the most desperate and sand pictures ever painted by Friedrich, even surpassing the desolation presented in Monk by the Sea. In this picture, the artist connects his religion to his creativity and attempts to convey spirituality by using nature and the Gothic styled ruined Abbey. Friedrich portrays a funeral procession in front of the ruins of the old Abbey that has been converted into a cemetery. The barren oak trees, bushes and two cross sticking out from the snow all set the context for the picture. All of these elements convey deathly silence and a dark and cold atmosphere.

The painting seems to be divided into two sections. The first section relates to the gloomy lower half of the scene that represents death and despair, whereas the second section focuses on the upper light half that represents hope and celestial revival. The white sky seems to form a crescent halo thus strengthening the bonds to God and bridging the gap between this mortal world and the world beyond man.

Friedrich also attempts to convey a unique perspective by making the trees larger, the closer to the center of the canvas, so that the ruined front gate of the abbey is highlighted. The abbey therefore seems to rise above the loneliness and melancholy of the slowly moving funeral process of monks that are bearing a coffin among the dead oak trees. The theme of the painting is death and hope for salvation.

This painting was destroyed by bombing in 1945 and exists only in reproduction. Koerner best summarizes the feelings of this picture in his statement:

And it arrests you on the Dresden heath, before the thicket in winter, when what you thought were just alders in the snow are fragments of your darkest history (244).

Picture 7: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
In the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Friedrich paints a traveler who is standing above the fog and confidently gazing into nature. In this moment, his encounter with nature becomes an encounter within himself. It seems like the traveler is caught into his own reflection into his life, full of experience and life changes. His position is romantic and confident in the same time. The wanderer’s position of the fog provides him a sense of confidence over nature. Friedrich made a distinction between the fog and a man who is standing straight up on the cliff. The man calmly looks out into the abyss of the turbulent forces of nature at work at his feet. One particularly striking point about this picture is how the artist achieved the dynamic “…interplay between clouds and mountains, this seamless mix of blank uncertainty and brilliant clarity, was achieved in paint” (Koerner 186).

It’s interesting to note that the face of the figure does not turn towards the viewer; therefore, one can only suggest his mood by the pose he stands in. We are thus invited to take on his point-of-view and to experience his emotions before the grandeur of the scene before him. The whole idea of the painting illustrates a sublime passion in nature. The picture also creates a degree of fear and trepidation in the viewer. This painting Friedrich used as a great example of how human life can integrate into natural movement. It is also a reflection of solitude upon vast landscape.

The Sea of Ice, 1824.

Two Men by the Sea, 1817.

Landscape in the Riesengebirge,1875. Hermitage, St. Petersburg 

Solitary Tree (Village Landscape in Morning Light) (1822) Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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