Caspar David Friedrich, 1774-1840

Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania, on the Baltic coast of Germany, the sixth of ten children, His father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich, a candle maker and soap boiler, was a Lutheran, and Caspar was brought up in a strict household. Death was never far away throughout his childhood: his mother died when he was seven; a year later, his sister Elisabeth died, and a second sister, Maria, died of typhus in 1791. But the worst happened in 1787, when he saw his younger brother, Johann Christoffer, drown by falling throught the ice of a frozen lake at the age of thirteen, It has been suggested that Johann Christoffer died while trying to rescue Caspar David, who was also in danger on the ice.

Left: Caspar David Friedrich, Self Portrait, 1800, chalk, 42 x 28 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark
Right: Franz Gerhard von Kügelgen, Portrait of Caspar David Friedrich, 1810-1820, oil on canvas, 53 x 42 cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

Friedrich’s work belonged to Romanticism, which was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century, and continued until the middle of the nineteenth. It was characterised by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as the glorification of  nature, and was in part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the new scientific approach to nature.


J M W Turner, Hannibal and his Men crossing the Alps, 1810-1812, oil on canvas, 145 x 236 cm, Tate Gallery, London, UK


Caspar David Friedrich, Abtei im Eichwald, 1810, oil on canvas, 171 x 110 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany

Friedrich and Turner were born within a year of each other, in 1774 & 1775.
Turner’s painting depicts the struggle of Hannibal’s soldiers to cross the Alps in 218 BC, opposed by the forces of nature and local tribes. A curving black storm cloud dominates the sky, poised to descend on the soldiers in the valley below, with an orange-yellow sun attempting to break through the clouds. A white avalanche cascades down the mountain to the right. It contains the first appearance in Turner’s work of a swirling oval vortex of wind, rain and cloud, a dynamic composition of contrasting light and dark.
Friedrich uses the same palette to different effect: here, emotion is the key. He painted his imaginary landscapes in the studio, having made sketches of isolated objects outside.


Caspar David Friedrich, Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes, 1825-1830, oil on canvas, 35 x 44 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA

Friedrich placed Die Rückenfigur, the figure seen from behind, into many of his paintings. This device distances the figures from the viewer, forcing them to look beyond into nature.


Caspar David Friedrich, Die Lebensstufen, 1835, oil on canvas, 73 × 94 cm, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany

Completed just five years before his death, this picture, like many of Friedrich’s works, forms a meditation both on his own mortality and on the transience of life. The painting shows an old man with his back turned to the viewer, walking towards two adults and two children on a hilltop overlooking a harbour. The figures are echoed by five ships shown in the harbour, each at a different distance from the shore, an allegorical reference to the different stages of human life, to the end of a journey, to death.

Another painting with a similar theme:


Caspar David Friedrich, Mondaufgang am Meer, 1822, oil on canvas, 55 x 71 cm, Alte Nationalgelerie, Berlin, Germany


Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer, 1808-1810, oil on canvas, 110 x 172 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany

In this work, the composition is divided horizontally into land, sea, and sky with a clear simplicity that shocked Friedrich’s contemporaries. The lonely figure of a monk faces the leaden blackness of the vast sea. The main space of the picture seems like an abyss of some kind; there are no boundaries, there is nothing to hold on to, just a sense of floating between night and day, between despair and hope.


Caspar David Friedrich, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, c1817, oil on canvas, 98 x 74 cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

This is probably the best known of his works and is a metaphor for the journey of life into the unknown.


Caspar David Friedrich, Friedhofseingang, 1825, oil on canvas, 143 x 110 cm, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany

Friedrich was buried in this cemetery, having fallen out of fashion, and ending his life in poverty, following a disabling stroke. Later, his work was used as a national symbol of identity by the Nazi regime, and as a result his work became unpopular.

Left: Caspar David Friedrich, Das Eismeer, 1823-24, oil on canvas, 127 x 97 cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
Right: Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1941, oil on canvas, 102 x 152 cm, Tate Gallery London.

The destruction of the man-made vessel at the hands of powerful and unforgiving nature depicts Friedrich’s awe of the natural world. In this inhospitable realm of frozen seas, man’s audacity and self-confidence are crushed by the immense force of the ice, and powers beyond our control.

Nash’s painting was inspired by a dump of wrecked aircraft at Cowley in Oxfordshire. Nash based the image on photographs he took there. The artist described the sight: ‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea … the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead.’

Munch also used the figure viewed from behind in order to suggest a feeling of loneliness and alienation:


Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones, 1899, print, Munch Museet, Oslo, Norway

BT, Meeting No 18, 29 May 2018


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