Caspar David Friedrich was a German artist associated with the Romantic movement, whose powerful landscapes, imbued with a powerful presence, immortalized his name and transcended its movement. Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings became one of the most pivotal and acclaimed examples of German Romanticism. The artist’s view upon the landscapes was one of the main particularities. The landscapes became living entities that emanated its sheer power and essence. The human figures, dwarfed by its magnificence, are often depicted with their back to the viewer, as they contemplate and absorb the relentless and sublime powers of nature. He often imbued his artworks with allegorical meanings religious overtones, symbolizing the Holy Father through nature.
Caspar David Friedrich is known as one of the most influential and unique German Romantic painters. He was born in September 1774, had nine other siblings, and a soap boiler and candle-maker father called Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich. Some sources state the Friedrich family struggled with poverty. Being that true or not, the young soon-to-be artist and his father endured many tragic losses in their family.
At seven years old, he lost his mother, Sophie Dorothea Bechly, and one of his sisters passed away only a year later. In 1787, Friedrich saw his brother drown after falling in a frozen pond, possibly the worst tragedy of his life. Just four years later, another sister died after becoming terribly ill. Art historians link the disasters Friedrich went through to the feeling of grief, sorrow, and loneliness present in his artwork throughout his life.
In 1790, he officially began studying art at the University of Greifswald, his hometown. Friedrich was encouraged to pencil draw from life, and outdoors, he also met Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten through his teacher, which influenced him to ponder about the spirituality in his art. His teachers also showed works of other landscape artists, like Adam Elsheimer, who mixed religious subjects with landscape paintings. Although art was his major, Friedrich also studied aesthetics under Thomas Thorild, a Swedish professor. The artist continued to invest in his education and left for the Academy of Copenhagen four years later. Soon, the young artist developed his oil painting practice.
Although Friedrich’s reputation as an artist was established as an oil painter, he experimented with many other media, like printmaking, mostly metal etching, and woodcuts. He also worked with watercolor, ink, and sepia painting, especially during the period in which he was settled in Dresden, by the end of the 1700s.
Even when experimenting with different materials, the artist’s primary theme became the same, as he would prefer to portray the beautiful landscapes he encountered. Friedrich became more and more discontent with the consumerism and value that people gave to the material aspects of life. Like the other landscape artists he admired, like J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, he led to a spiritual state of mind in which the concept of nature is a divine creation.
It was only in 1805, at the age of 31, that Friedrich began to receive the recognition he deserved, because of the praise he got after winning the Weimar competition with two sepia paintings.
By 1810, the artist would finish his oil painting The Monk by the Sea, which arguably became his most important and influential artwork, lanching his name into international recognition. The canvas is a sublime composition depicting a monk walking alone by a coast. Although the artwork is a figurative painting, its minimalist execution and pictorial restraint borders the abstraction; the discernible figures become almost irrelevant upon the forms and shades of color that permeates the composition.
Large portions of color are punctuated with small brushstrokes. Friedrich had the keen ability to convey and inspire emotions with his landscapes. This masterpiece was no different. Despite the lack of human figures and even varied landscape elements, the composition is still able to inspire a wide array of emotions. Still, Friedrich managed to imbue his landscape with intense feelings in an intrinsic manner, encouraging the viewer to contemplate and reach out to those feelings by oneself. These underlying meanings arranged in a non-narrative style would be essential to the development of modernist abstraction.
Around the same period, the artist also finished his Abbey in the Oak Wood. Friedrich was also one of the earliest landscape painters to depict scenes of barren and dead scenery, epitomized in this masterpiece. The composition is solemn and still striking, as a ruined Gothic abbey appears between a mist and bare oak trees. On the foreground, one can notice an open grave and a group of monks heading towards the dilapidated construction. According to scholars, the barren land inspires concepts of death and despair.
The Romanticist became a member of the prestigious Berlin Academy in 1810 and married Caroline Bommer eight years later. The couple had three children together. Even though his contribution to German art was significant, he died in obscurity in the year 1840 in Dresden, Germany.
It was only by the 1920s that his art was rediscovered by the modern painters of the Expressionist movement, who deeply appreciated his work, along with the Surrealists in the 1930s. Unfortunately for Friedrich, his paintings began to be associated with the Nazi movement because of its sense of nationalism. Still, he was able to regain his reputation as one of the greatest German painters by the late 1970s.
Although Romanticism, with the development of modern movement, came out of flavor, Friederich’s artworks transcended the movement and became an influence for several generations of artists to come, and even more, recent artists, such as Mark Rothko and Gerard Richter. Many Surrealist artists would regard the artist as one of the precursors of the movement. His aesthetic also inspired movie directors like the distinguished German cinema master like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
One of the main elements that immortalized Friedrich’s oeuvre was not simply the masterful execution of his landscapes, but rather the manner he portrayed and explored the scene as a subject matter. The artist explored the pleasant enjoyment of a beautiful view and displayed it in a classical manner. He also explored the landscapes with spiritual lenses, achieving not only a sense of beauty but the sheer power that emanated from nature and the sense sublimity a human would feel upon perceiving it.
In fact, many of Caspar David’s artworks are permeated with human figures interacting with the landscape. They’re often depicted looking away from the viewer and towards the landscape. They encourage the viewer to take their place and explore one’s sentiments over the contemplation of nature. The landscape was no longer a neutral backdrop, where the main focus was human figures. It was now portrayed as a living entity, able to strike the viewer a sense of awe, solemnity, despair, redemption, or mysteriousness.
Although the Romantic movement’s overall theme was the relation of humans and nature, some elements would differentiate the production made in France, Britain, and Germany. British Romanticism predominantly focused on more bucolic and nostalgic landscapes, while the French would often explore the human desire to thrive upon nature. However, the German approach to the subject explores the human longing for a deeper understanding of nature, and consequently, the divine.
It was common to German Romantic painters to render their human figures looking towards the landscape, and away from the viewer, suggesting a full communion with the landscape, encouraging the viewer to join them. This practice was known as “ruckenfigur” and is abundantly present in Friedrich’s oeuvre.
Some of Caspar David Friederich’s concepts on art are immortalized in some of his quotes.
“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
“The artist should not only paint what he sees before him but also what he sees in himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what 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
In the next quote, it is possible to glimpse into the poetic vision in which the Romantic artist took upon the landscapes he perceived:
“Gently rising hills block the view into the distance; line the wishes and desires of the children, who enjoy the blissful moments of the present without wanting to know what lies beyond. Bushes in bloom, nourishing herbs, and sweet-smelling flowers surround the quiet clear stream in which the pure blue of the cloudless sky is reflected like the glorious image of God in the souls of the children… There is no stone to be seen here, no withered branch, no fallen leaves. The whole of nature breathes, peace, joy, innocence, and life.”
— Caspar David Friedrich