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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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

By Alexandra Jopp

Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)  (CONT.)

About the Artist

The Independent: "Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is the great painter of loss and longing. He painted Romantic landscapes – ruins, forests, mountains, oceans, nights. He said: "Close your bodily eye, so that you may see your picture first with your spiritual eye; then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in darkness, so that it may react on others from the outside inwards." He composes scenes in mystic symmetry. He obscures things in mist or distance. He puts a mute element bang in the middle – a back-turned figure, a rugged cross. And the imagination rushes in."


Friedrich’s introspection paralleled his religious convictions and inspired him to paint nature scene combined with mysticism. Friedrich was once quoted as “the spirit of the world which is God reveals itself visibly and completely in nature…” (Siegel 35). The spiritual elements often make contact with the tangible forces of nature in Friedrich’s paintings. This is illustrated in the painting Monk by the Sea, where the monk stands at the seashore and looks into the distance at the morning star thinking of death, or perhaps praying while holding his head and hands in a gesture of silent meditation. The painting shows a tiny figure of a man in contrast to a large expanse of the sea that only serves to deepen the religious meaning of the picture. This same spiritual connection can be seen in another of Friedrich’s paintings, Wanderer Above the Sea Fog, which depicts a similar mixture of religion, contemplation and nature. Similar to Monk by the Sea, the figure in the picture seems to invite the viewer to self reflect and evaluate themselves. Both of these pictures were accomplished with almost ten years difference and in both of them, we can recognize the figure of the artist by his blonde hair. It’s interesting to note that later on his life, the artist would draw his self-portraits in monk’s clothes.

In the same year after Friedrich completed Monk by the Sea, he also painted Abbey in the Oak Forest. In this painting the artist sticks with the monk motif and depicts them carrying a coffin to the ruined Abbey. These two paintings definitely related to each other. This is evident by evaluating pieces, where it becomes evident that both scenes are really a projection of Friedrich’s own life. In the Abbey in the Oak Forest, Friedrich seems to be imaging his own funeral and contemplating the end of life, which relates very closely to the Monk by the Sea, where the monk is in deep contemplation and attempting to commune with God.

According to Vaughan, Friedrich lived his religion and believed that “the study of nature, God’s creation, was a religious act” (“Romanticism and Art” 151). This manifested itself in Friedrich’s fervent drive to manifest the word of God into his pictures. In essence, Friedrich’s paintings were icons to him, a snapshot of the glory of God on Earth.

Friedrich promoted the preeminence of spirit in all of his works. Naturally, the question arises as to what was the intention of the artist. For example, they could be interpreted to be about the painful remoteness of man from God. Since his art is not full of images or plots, Friedrich’s motifs are often combined or sometimes repeated. As we can observe, he repeats his forest paths, empty seacoasts, deserted landscapes, cemeteries, monks, and ships in twilight (or fog), ships in an open sea, or people in the moonlight. His religious motifs are often hidden but always palpable. The source of light, as projected by moonlight, sunrise, or sunset seems to strengthen the connection between the material and ethereal worlds.


In one of his footnotes, the artist admits that it is not a joy or fun that moves the human soul in its aspiration to be supreme. It’s interesting to note that none of his paintings contain images of joy. This sense of sadness is conveyed in Friedrich's paintings by portraying scenes of desolate landscapes, cemeteries, and silent figures in vast and in union with nature. They all have something in common, which is that they appear to be deeply spiritual and often times melancholy. Friedrich doesn’t simply paint an image; he imbues his painting with a strong spirit that strikes the viewer with awe and personal reflection. Friedrich himself stated, “the painter should not just paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees inside of himself…” (Siegel 11). In essence, Friedrich did not simply occupy his thoughts with the external world, but rather, turned his creative eye inward in order to probe the inner workings of his soul and to place it on canvas.

Friedrich’s inspiration is drawn from his spiritual freedom and his fondness of nature. He conveys subjective feelings and emotions of individual figures in his paintings by expressing them in such a dramatic way. According to David d’Angers, a prominent French sculptor of the time, Friedrich inspired him so much that he once stated “Friedrich…[is]…the only landscape painter who has so far had the power to move all the faculties of my soul, the painter who has invented a new genre; the tragedy of landscape” (qtd. in Kristina Van Prooyen 16).

Friedrich’s paintings seem to talk to us in philosophic language by conveying melancholy and solitude. They talk to us about existence, God, death, infinity, and hope. Feeling of isolation in Friedrich’s paintings is solitude before solemn and silent nature. It is a spiritual union between nature and man. In this picture, it appears as if the subjects look at the viewer as if the Apocalypse is coming. It is easy to feel this way, even though there are no obvious symbols of death. The painting Monk by the Sea, one of Friedrich’s earliest works carries symbol of death in the lonely figure of the monk walking along the Baltic seashore. In romantic consciousness of the artist death has seen as a blessing and revival to a better existence. We can see these symbols of death and of hope for a new life in another his powerful painting Abbey in the Oak Forest. In this picture, we see between the dry branches of the oak trees, the birth of the sunrise and in Monk by the Sea, we see the ray of light that rises above the sea horizon. Transitive conditions of nature - from darkness to light, from light to the twilight, undoubtedly came from Friedrich’s penache for symbols. His paintings depict mystical, thoughtful, and profound metaphors that are peculiar to his art. In front of his figures, nature opens into a vast landscape with the tincture of a romantic haze with every element carrying a subtle meaning. Thus, a cemetery means death, ship means a human life, and a harbor means the end of a wanderer’s voyage. According to Vaughan, Friedrich’s friend Dahl, said, “…Friedrich saw in particularly tragic way…the limits of what can be represented in painting” (qtd. in “Romanticism and Art” 142).

Style, Use of perspective – depth and lines

Friedrich depicts a style that is unique to him. One of his hallmark characteristics is to place figures’ back to the viewer. It’s interesting to note that Friedrich never painted the faces of the people portrayed in his pictures. This leads one to speculate that perhaps the paintings, which depicted images of deep contemplation, were far too personal. Perhaps Friedrich wanted to leave the interpretation up to the viewer, rather then giving away too much.

Another unique element of Friedrich’s style is his choice of colors used in his motifs. As an example, comparing the painting Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon to Wanderer above the Sea Fog. Both of the pictures were painted within a one-year difference. According Rewald, “both paintings feature the same elaborate rendition of detail and smoothing of individual brushstrokes; the difference in the use of color are due to the difference in motifs” (27).

Distance in Friedrich’s paintings also conveys a sense of fear or charm. Taking Monk by the Sea as an example, the writer Heinrich von Kleist wrote “…because of its monotony and boundlessness, with nothing but the frame as a foreground, one feels as if one’s eyelids had been cut away” (qtd. in Vaughan, “Romanticism and Art” 147). Indeed, the space that has been depicted in this painting absorbs the viewer’s attention despite its simplicity. The painting is really simple: two horizontal lines - one is an unbroken line of the horizon that separates sky from sea and, the second is the, bending line of the seashore with one vertical line of a tiny figure on it. These vertical lines that depict figures in Friedrich’s paintings go through his landscape over and over again, as evidence by the funeral procession of monks who are making their way in twilight to the ruined Gothic Abbey. These paintings have one thing in common – a man is always alone in nature and painted very small in contrast to the landscape. This technique heightens the feeling that the viewer is looking at the picture from a height. By drawing small figures, Friedrich probably wanted to emphasize the distance and expanse of the picture. When figures appear in the foreground, they always turned their backs to the spectator gazing in the endless expanse in order to highlight the distance that exists. The same technique is used in Abbey in the Oak Forest, where the artists contrasted elements of near and far, dark and light as the funeral procession moves through the open grave towards the cemetery along the empty wintry path of background.

The German Romantic attitude toward nature is spiritual, contemplative and poetically philosophical. Caspar David Friedrich epitomizes the romantic period through his profound landscapes. Although many of his paintings are not easy to understand, each carries an embedded message and compelling meaning. In order to understand them, one must look at them with Friedrich’s eyes, to see the world from Friedrich’s perspective. Wackenroder once stated “a work of art can only be grasped spiritually by the same emotion which has produced it” (Qtd. in Siegel 139). True, Friedrich had a profound and contemplative soul; and he portrayed the silence and enigma of the universe in the way he felt it. His art is melancholic and symbolizes man’s dramatic end. According to Brown, Friedrich was well know for using “…symbol and allegory” in his paintings and used “…crystalline colour, mysterious viewpoints and [a] unique blend of realism and mystery 148). In his art we see the artist’s tendency toward self-examination and his work actually representing his own soul. Friedrich’s art transcends the normal boundaries of nature; past the sky and the ocean and into the inner most recesses of our soul.

There is a sensation of eternity and infinity of life and a distinct grief embedded within his pictures. The artist selected those conditions of nature that could draw the viewer into his world through the daily acts of nature that we take for granted (e.g. moonrise, early morning and sunset). Friedrich was both a priest of the soul and a poet of nature.

Works Cited

Brown, David. Romanticism. Singapore: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001.

Koerner, Joseph Leo. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.

Monrad, Kasper. Friedrich and Two Danish Moonwatchers. Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers. Ed. Sabine Rewald. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001. 23-29.

Siegel, Linda. Caspar David Friedrich and the Age of German Romanticism. Boston: Branden Press Publishers, 1978.

Vaughan, William. Friedrich. Singapore: Phaidon Press Limited, 2004.

---. Romanticism and Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

---, et al. Caspar David Friedrich 1774-1840 Romantic Landscape Painting in Dresden. London: The Tate Gallery, 1972.

Van Prooyen, Kristina. “The Realm of the Spirit: Caspar David Friedrich’s artwork in
the context of romantic theology, with special reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

Journal of the Oxford University History Society 1. (2004): 1-28.

“Romanticism.” Encarta World English Dictionary. 1999.


  1. The solitude, mystery, and grandeur of his paintings made him one of my favourites from an extremely early age. I used to listen to bleak and melancholic Metal music (I still do), and realised that his artwork went so well with that style of music.

  2. I feel strongly learning the topic, however I need to learn more on this topic.
    Carry on your updates..!!


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