Friedrich, Caspar David

views updated May 18 2018


the infinite landscape

FRIEDRICH, CASPAR DAVID (1774–1840), German painter.

Caspar David Friedrich (born 5 September 1774 in Greifswald, died 7 May 1840 in Dresden) is the outstanding painter of German Romanticism. His importance for German art is comparable to that of Eugène Delacroix for Romanticism in France or that of J. M. W. Turner in Great Britain. At most, Philipp Otto Runge's (1777–1810) influence may be said to rival Friedrich's.

Greifswald in New Western Pomerania, Friedrich's birthplace, had been under Swedish rule from 1648 to 1814, and only the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) brought its cession to Prussia. Friedrich was the sixth of ten children in an artisan's family. His father was a soap boiler and chandler. At the age of sixteen, Friedrich first received lessons from an art teacher at the University of Greifswald. From 1794 to 1798, he studied at the outstanding Copenhagen Art Academy. Among his mentors were Nikolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743–1809) and Jens Juel (1745–1802), who made a name for himself as a portraitist and landscape painter. By autumn of 1798, Friedrich was active in Dresden, where he led a largely uneventful life. Only relatively late in life, at age forty-four, he married and had three children with his wife, a simple girl from the neighborhood.

Six times between 1801 and 1826 Friedrich undertook the journey to his home, Greifswald, and to the nearby island of Rìgen, where he found many subjects for his paintings. Other trips, also on foot and accompanied by artist friends, took him to the Silesian Riesengebirge in 1810 and to the Harz Mountains in 1811; quite frequently he traveled the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and northern Bohemia—always with paintbrush or pen in hand. In his later years, he took cures several times at the health resort of Teplice (Bohemia). He never journeyed to Italy—in contrast to many southern German Romantics, who settled in Rome, taking the collective label of the "Nazarenes."


Initially, Friedrich attempted to make a living by doing sepia landscapes. His first success came in 1805. At a contest organized by the "Weimarer Kunstfreunde," his two drawings—submitted on the initiative of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who subsequently became increasingly critical of Friedrich's art—shared first prize with another entry.

At Christmas of 1808 Friedrich exhibited the painting Cross in the Mountains in his Dresden studio. With this work, he created a pure depiction of landscape—the rays of the setting evening sun playing around a rock overgrown with firs, from which rises a small cross with the crucified Christ—as an altarpiece, thus endowing the landscape with sacred dignity. The chamberlain Basilius von Ramdohr took offense at it and published a polemic stating that "indeed it is true impudence when landscape painting sets about sneaking into the churches and onto the altars." Even though the painting never served its originally intended purpose as an altar-piece, a public controversy soon erupted, and various of Friedrich's friends defended his work vehemently. In the end, the artist's name became generally known—even if in a controversial way.

More lasting was the response to the Monk by the Sea, a painting Friedrich created a short time afterward, and probably the most radical he ever executed in all his life. In the fall of 1810, Friedrich sent it, together with its companion piece (in the same format), the Abbey in an Oakwood, to an exhibition at the Berlin Akademie, where the two paintings were hung one above the other. Famous in this context is the essay "Empfindungen vor Friedrichs Seelandschaft" (Emotions on beholding Friedrich's sea scenery), published by the poet Heinrich von Kleist on 13 October 1810 in the Berliner Abendblätter, which Kleist edited: "With its two or three mysterious objects, the painting lies there like the apocalypse, as if it pondered Edward Young's Night Thoughts. And since in all its uniformity and boundlessness, it has nothing but the picture frame as a foreground, when looking at the painting it appears as if one's eyelids had been cut off." In this almost abstract work, the observer discerns on the bottom a narrow, bright, sandy stripe—the seashore; above it an equally dark narrow stripe—the sea; and then, covering four-fifths of the canvas, the sky pervaded with clouds. The small figure of a monk represents the only vertical. On the crown prince's urging, the king of Prussia purchased the two paintings displayed in Berlin.

In 1824 the king of Saxony granted Friedrich the honorary title of "extraordinary professor" as well as a modest annual salary. However, Friedrich was not allowed to teach drawing classes at the Art Academy in Dresden—he was regarded as too much of a loner and outsider. If until the mid-1810s, Friedrich was at the zenith of his brief artistic fame, thereafter the "death-yearning emptiness" of his art was considered as outdated. Toward the end of his life, Friedrich seemed to have fallen into oblivion. Yet since the so-called Jahrhundertausstellung at the Berlin National-galerie in 1906, where thirty-six of his paintings were shown, his fame has steadily grown.

the infinite landscape

Since his rediscovery around 1900, Friedrich has come to be considered the painter of the "infinite landscape." We view his landscapes as a "mirror of the soul" and comprehend Friedrich as an artist who—thoroughly a product of Romanticism—has directed "the gaze inward," along the lines of his motto: "The painter ought not merely to paint what he discerns in front of him but also what he sees inside of him. If he does not see anything in himself, though, he ought to refrain altogether from painting what he perceives in front of him."

Time after time Friedrich juxtaposed pairs of opposites such as morning and evening, youth and old age, birth and death, becoming and expiring. In the depiction of nature, particularly in its cyclical changes, he sought to encompass human existence and to capture at least to some extent the meaning of transitory existence. In his works he associates human fate with the cycle of seasons. In group after group of new paintings he followed the hours of the day, the yearly cycle, the stages of life, the courses of rivers, the rhythm of departure and return of ships, the alternation of high and low tide, of sowing and harvesting. Friedrich's characters seek the view and experience of nature; seen from behind, they draw the observer's gaze into nature. The viewer is encouraged to perceive nature as do these figures and become meditatively engrossed in it.

Yet Friedrich did not complete his paintings in a natural setting. All of his works took shape in the studio. He created them from memory, with the aid of numerous graphic studies of nature. Before his "inner eye" the countless details—rock formations and river mouths, fishing nets and sailboats, the stones at the seashore and the trees with their massive branches—came together to form the composition. In all this, Friedrich was concerned with the meaningful correlation between the details, not with the reproduction of a particular scenic feature. In nature he perceived the hieroglyphics of a spiritual script, the ciphers of an unknown alphabet. By means of their balanced and well-calculated composition, his paintings were intended to convey an idea of a hidden allegory, without spelling things out too clearly.

When Friedrich died in 1840 after a protracted illness, he did not leave behind any disciples or epigones of any standing. Instead of a Romantic striving for a symbolic interpretation of nature, the Düsseldorf School of landscape painting, more decidedly oriented toward realism, gained the upper hand. Only belatedly, the isolated figure of Friedrich in the sphere of graphic arts came to be recognized as a significant counterpart to the poets and writers of early German Romanticism such as Novalis (Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg; 1772–1801), August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845), and Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853).

See alsoDelacroix, Eugène; Novalis (Hardenberg, Friedrich von); Romanticism; Schlegel, August Wilhelm von; Turner, J. M. W.


Börsch-Supan, Helmut. Caspar David Friedrich. Munich, 2005.

Börsch-Supan, Helmut, and Karl Wilhelm Jähnig. C.D.F. Gemälde, Druckgraphik und bildmäßige Zeichnungen. Munich, 1973. Catalogue raisonné.

Hofmann, Werner. Caspar David Friedrich: Naturwirklichkeit und Kunstwahrheit. Munich, 2005.

Koerner, Joseph Leo. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape. London, 1990.

Schmied, Wieland. "Faces of Romanticism: Friedrich, Delacroix, Turner, Constable." In The Romantic Spirit in German Art, 1790–1990, edited by Keith Hartley. Edinburgh and London, 1994. Exhibition catalog.

——. Caspar David Friedrich. Translated from the German by Russell Stockman. New York, 1995.

——. Caspar David Friedrich: Zyklus, Zeit, und Ewigkeit. Munich, 1999.

Wieland Schmied

Caspar David Friedrich

views updated May 18 2018

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), one of the major artists of German romanticism, revived landscape painting in Germany, depicting through nature his own melancholy moods, pantheistic beliefs, and nationalistic feelings.

Born on Sept. 5, 1774, in Greifswald, Caspar David Friedrich was the son of a soap manufacturer. His mother died when he was 7; and when he was 13, his favorite brother died while the two boys were ice-skating, for which Caspar David suffered a lifelong sense of guilt. The painter's familiarity with death and his melancholy disposition were further affirmed by a suicide attempt.

Friedrich began studying drawing in 1788; in 1794 he entered the art academy in Copenhagen, one of the most liberal in Europe, notably in its unusual emphasis on drawing from nature rather than from older art. His teachers were masters of Danish neoclassicism, but they also transmitted the concepts of early English romanticism, notably Henry Fuseli's theories, before Friedrich left for Dresden in 1798.

Friedrich's early landscapes and engravings are much like his teachers' works, but constant sketching after nature released him from neoclassic formulations, and a careful realistic rendering asserted itself in vast, spacious landscapes at times populated by small isolated figures or heroic ruins. By 1806 he had developed an independent formal and iconological vocabulary.

Friedrich's reputation grew rapidly; he found patrons among Saxony's nobility and received the Prize of the Weimar Friends of Art. He became acquainted with the major writers of German romanticism and with the painters Phillip Otto Runge, Johan Christian Dahl, and Carl Gustav Carus. In 1808 the classicist critic F. W. B. von Ramdohr attacked Friedrich's painting Cross in the Mountains (also known as the Tetschen Altarpiece), demanding whether "it is a good idea to use landscape allegorically to represent a religious concept or even to arouse a sense of reverence." After criticizing the painting, depicting a crucifix on a mountain illuminated by the setting sun, Ramdohr concluded that a depiction of nature cannot properly be symbolical or allegorical, that "it is the greatest arrogance when landscape painting seeks to worm its way into the churches and crawl onto the altars." Several of Friedrich's friends answered these criticisms in detail, thereby causing a major argument that served ultimately to increase the artist's fame.

Friedrich himself interpreted the painting as representing man's continuous faith and hope in the person of Jesus Christ despite the decline of formalized religion. Whether populated by Christian symbols or not, Friedrich's landscapes all possess a spiritual quality, and such religious meanings reflect his own mystical convictions. Contact with the romantic writers had convinced him that "art must have its source in man's inner being; yet, it must be dependent on a moral or religious value." Among his aphorisms on art, he wrote: "The noble man (artist) recognizes God in everything…. Shut your corporeal eye so that you first see your picture with your spiritual eye. Then bring to light that which you saw in darkness so that it may reflect on others from the exterior to their spiritual interior." Like the romantic writers, he saw art as the mediator between man and the mystical sources of nature. His own time Friedrich viewed as being on the periphery of all religions, founded on the ruins of the temples of the past and building for a future of clarity and nondogmatic religious truth.

Contemporary political events formed the other major content of Friedrich's work. The Napoleonic Wars aroused in him a fierce hatred of France and an intense love of Germany. He expressed his patriotic support of the German liberation movements in mountain scenes depicting lost French soldiers or monuments to German freedom fighters. And his disappointment in the antidemocratic Prussian restoration after the wars was symbolized in a painting of an ice-encrusted ship named Hope (1822).

In 1816 Friedrich became a member of the Dresden Academy, which gave him a steady income and allowed him to marry in 1818. In 1820 the Russian czarevitch purchased several paintings from him, but Friedrich's popularity began to decline because of his political attitudes and increasing official attacks on his art. His mental and physical health steadily deteriorated. In 1837 a serious stroke terminated his career. He died on May 7, 1840, forgotten by all but a small circle of friends. His subjective, emotional art was rediscovered early in the 20th century, when German expressionism sought similar effects through more radical means.

Further Reading

A surprisingly balanced pamphlet on Friedrich was published by the German Library of Information, Caspar David Friedrich: His Life and Work (1940). More recent is Leopold D. Ettlinger, Caspar David Friedrich (1967). See also Marcel Brion, Art of the Romantic Era (trans. 1966).

Additional Sources

Bèorsch-Supan, Helmut, Caspar David Friedrich, London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.

The romantic vision of Caspar David Friedrich: paintings and drawings from the U.S.S.R., New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago; New York: Distributed by Abrams, 1990.

Jensen, Jens Christian, Caspar David Friedrich: life and work, Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron's, 1981. □

Friedrich, Caspar David

views updated Jun 27 2018

Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840) German painter. One of the greatest German Romantic painters, he created eerie, symbolic landscapes, such as Shipwreck on the Ice (1822) and Man and Woman Gazing at the Moon (1824).