Caspar David Friedrich
Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania (present day Germany)
Summary of Caspar David Friedrich
Seeking to capture an experience of the infinite, Caspar David Friedrich composed works that directly confronted the viewer with the awesome. Friedrich took the genre of landscape painting, traditionally considered unimportant, and infused it with deep religious and spiritual significance. Believing that the majesty of the natural world could only reflect the magnificence of God, he featured sunlight vistas and foggy expanses to convey the beautiful power of the divine.
- Friedrich's moody landscapes, which often thrust the viewer into the wilds of nature, created an emotional connection with the viewer rather than a more literal interaction with the scene. This integration of spiritual significance with landscape painting made him a popular success.
- While conservative contemporaries challenged Friedrich's allegorical and religious landscapes, the artist maintained that his work never simply replicated a view, but rather provided opportunity to contemplate God's presence in the world. Using dramatic perspectives and misty, untamed expanses that dwarfed any figures, Friedrich encouraged the viewer to accept the awesome power of nature as evidence of a divine spirit.
- Dismissing the picturesque traditions of landscape painting, Friedrich embraced the Romantic notion of the sublime. Through his sensitive depictions of mist, fog, darkness, and light, the artist conveyed the infinite power and timelessness of the natural realm; the viewer is physically reminded of his frailty and insignificance.
- Friedrich's subtle color palette and emphasis on light often created an overwhelming sense of emptiness that would influence Modern Art. The visual minimalism of his paintings was so unusual that his audiences were often confused; reportedly, one group of art enthusiasts who visited his studio viewed a work upside down on the easel, believing the clouds were waves and the water was the sky. Modernists would learn from his use of subdued color and the simplicity of his compositions that still conveyed profound ideas.
Biography of Caspar David Friedrich
The sixth of ten children, Caspar David Friedrich was born into a strict Lutheran family. He became familiar with tragedy at an early age, losing his mother when he was seven, and two sisters to childhood illnesses. Perhaps the most impactful loss was the death of his brother, Johann, who drowned while trying to rescue the then thirteen-year-old artist when he fell through the ice.
Important Art by Caspar David Friedrich
Commonly referred to as The Tetschen Altar, Friedrich's The Cross in the Mountains features a pine-covered mountaintop upon which stands a large crucifix. The cloud-filled sky is rendered in shades of red, pink, and violet which fade from dark to light from the top to the bottom of the canvas. Five beams of light emanate from a distant, unseen horizon.
The shaped canvas is set in an elaborate frame, designed by the artist but carved by his friend Gottlieb Christian Kuhn. The frame features a range of Christian symbols, including the heads of five baby angels, a star, grapes and vines, corn, and the eye of God.
This painting, one of his earliest, embodies many of the Romantic motifs and themes he would address throughout his career, most notably the important symbolism of the landscape itself. Indeed, although the altarpiece includes a crucifix, the emphasis is placed on the spiritual essence of nature. He described the work: "High up on the summit stands the cross, surrounded by evergreen fir trees, and evergreen ivy twines about the base of the cross. The glowing sun is sinking, and the Saviour on the cross shines in the crimson of the sunset ... The cross stands on a rock, as unshakably firm as our faith in Jesus Christ. Fir trees rise around the cross, evergreen and everlasting, like the hope of men in Him, the crucified Christ." This was a groundbreaking reinterpretation of the genre of landscape painting giving it a new level of potential significance. It reflected Friedrich's belief that the divinity of God could be best found in nature.
While Friedrich was deeply religious, aspiring to paint an image that would convey the power of God more fully than possible through words, his approach was highly controversial. When the artist opened his studio to the public in 1808, allowing them to view this work, the 19th-century art critic Wilhelm von Ramdohr argued that a landscape could not function as an altarpiece. Friedrich and his supporters publicly defended the painting and the resulting debate helped to build Friedrich's reputation.
This simple painting of a mountain peak awash in a white mist of early dawn fog, surrounded by barely discernable pine trees and rocky outcroppings manifests Friedrich's ideals of the Romantic landscape. This majestic, remote view of monumental nature implied a connection to a higher power, particularly in its scale and use of light. Here, a break in the clouds allows light to shine through, as if illuminating the mountain peak with a divine light.
To achieve this religious message, the depiction of mist was an important symbol for the artist. As he explained, "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." Positioning us before this vast expanse with no sense of foreground, he wanted to immerse the viewer in the experience of the natural realm; a dramatic field that he felt most closely expressed the beauty and power of God. This approach created a new possibility for religious painting, based not in overt Christian symbolism, but in direct contact with awesome beyond the control of man.
Arguably one of Friedrich's most important and well-known works in his oeuvre, this painting launched the artist to international fame when it was exhibited with The Abbey in the Oak Woods (1808-10) at an 1810 art exhibition in Berlin. A vast, empty landscape is dominated by the top three quarters of the canvas, which depicts a blue-gray sky and green sea. The foreground is an uneven swath of beige land where, just left of center, stands a man. Although his back is to the viewer, he is identifiable by the long, dark robe of a monk. The canvas is filled with large expanses of color, punctuated by small brushstrokes of white to denote a few crests of waves and birds in the sky. It is a masterpiece of minimalism and pictorial restraint, while still conjuring a felt sensation of awe, wonder, and humility.
The positive reception of this pair of paintings contributed to Friedrich' election as a member of the Berlin Academy and also drew the favor of Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia, who purchased the two exhibited paintings for the royal collection; a prestigious honor. Beyond the accolades, however, this work demonstrates Friedrich's experimental spirit. Any traditional approach to landscape painting has disappeared. At a quick glance, the compositional structure appears uneven and lacks a perspective focal point. Rather than illustrate a scene, Friedrich has created an opportunity for the viewer to experience a range of emotions, only suggested by the artist. If he had included more details, the viewer would be tempted to invent a narrative or story, but with this bare minimum, we are felt with only sensorial information.
This new way of creating landscapes reinforced the idea that the viewer should contemplate the sublimity of the natural world and read into it an expression of the spiritual. The potential for deep meaning in a sparse, non-narrative style, would be critical to modernist abstraction. This painting, in particular, has been linked with the post World War II Color Field paintings of Mark Rothko, also intended to cultivate a spiritual experience for the viewer.
While Friedrich often painted landscapes without a human presence, this painting represents his second approach to investing the landscape painting with a deeper significance and connection to the viewer: the use of a proxy or stand-in. The solitary figure turned towards and in communion with the landscape, known as "ruckenfigur," is one of the key ways German Romanticism differentiates itself from French and British Romanticism. Although internationally, Romanticism was occupied with the connection between man and nature, British painters tended to emphasize more nostalgic or bucolic landscapes, while the French painters often suggested man's desire to conquer nature; the German approach depicts man's attempt to understand nature and, by extension, the divine. This preference for an emotional connection between the viewer and the image replaced more literal or illustrative approaches, exemplified by Friedrich's moody landscapes, which often thrust the viewer into the wilds of nature.