Born in Germany only two years before John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich is widely regarded as the most important of the German romantic landscape painters.
Friedrich was born in Greifswald on the Baltic Coast. He was the sixth of ten children brought up in the strict Lutheran creed of his father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich, a candle maker and soap boiler. He was confronted with death at an early age.
- His mother died when he was just seven years old
- Two sisters died a few years later
- Younger brother, Johann Christoffer drowned when he fell through the ice on a frozen lake – young Caspar David tried to save him but failed.
This personal tragedy certainly explains some of the melancholy and the presence of death in many of Friedrich’s paintings. He paints small figures contemplating the view and inviting us to do the same. And the view is of a nature that is beyond human control, unreachable and merciless and at the same time inspiring us to hope for eternal life.
Magical Light and Contemplative Figures
Friedrich’s paintings are easy to recognise. He is famous for the magical light that seems to shine from within the canvas itself and there is often a figure in the foreground with his or her back turned to the viewer.
Friedrich’s primary interest was the contemplation of nature to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world and he is best known for his allegorical landscapes featuring:
- contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies
- morning mists
- barren trees
- Gothic ruins
- His small human figures set within expansive landscapes, are deliberately reduced to a scale that, according to the art historian Christopher John Murray: “directs the viewer’s gaze towards their metaphysical dimension” (extract from Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era Volume One, edited by John Murray)
Like Constable, Friedrich made sketches from life, but often mixed scenes from completely different locations when he completed his paintings. In language reminiscent of John Constable, he said:
“The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him.” Caspar David Friedrich
“Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards.” Caspar David Friedrich
Click this link for an enlightening discussion on German Romanticism and Monk by the Sea (the painting under discussion is the second image above)
God in Creation
Friedrich believed that the divine nature of God could be sensed in his creations and this belief inspired such works as The Monk by the Sea (1808) see second image above and The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (1818) see fourth image above, depicting a figure silent and alone in a mist-filled landscape. Take a look at The Stages of Life (1835) see third image above and you will see a landscape with a message – peopled with isolated figures who appear to be interrogating nature as to the meaning of their lives.
“A dedication to a mystical Christianity lies behind his landscapes. His introspective nature led him to pursue the idea of the spiritual significance of landscape in a life-long quest. The strong glow of moonlight, or the mists of dawn envelop like a mystical veil, the occasional figures in a silent and impassive isolation as they commune with the spirit of nature.” The Illustrated History of Art by Judith Clark.
Rise and Decline
Having enjoyed recognition and success in his early and middle years, Friedrich’s reputation declined. When romantic painting decreased in popularity, Friedrich did not change his manner with the mood of the day. He kept his conviction, which made it hard for him to provide for his wife and three daughters who were forced to live in relative poverty.
Towards the end of his life he became lonelier and his paintings became darker. At the age of 61 he had a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. After that he was forced to paint in a small format, using watercolor and sepia. By then, he was something of a broken man. But his conviction stayed strong. Friedrich said:
“I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.” Caspar David Friedrich
End of Life
Caspar David Friedrich died in obscurity in 1840, a recluse living in Dresden, dependent on the charity of friends. His passing was little noticed within the artistic community.
Icon of the German Romantic Movement
It was not until the late 1970s that Friedrich regained his reputation as an icon of the German Romantic movement and a painter of international importance.