Caspar David Friedrich was born on 5 September 1774 at Greifswald, near Rostock, in what was then Swabia-Pomerania. He was the sixth of ten children of Gottlieb Adolf Friedrich, a soap manufacturer, and Sophie Dorothea Friedrich. His mother died when he was five and the children were raised by the nanny “Mutter” Heiden. Casper learned to draw from Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald. While still very young he lost a brother and two sisters: they drowned while they were trying to save him. From 1794 to 1798 he studied at the academy in Copenhagen. Then he moved to Dresden that was to be his home for the rest of his life. He drew portraits, ships and boats, plants, rocks and trees. His trip to the island of Rügen, in the Baltic Sea, led to his first landscapes and there he met the other great German romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810). Caspar specialized in sepia drawings and for two of them won the famous Weimar award that was presented to him by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The crown prince of Prussia purchased some of his works and at the peak of his career he began painting what he called “little prayers in the woods”. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the post-Congress of Vienna political arrangements, Prussia became Friedrich’s home. In 1816 he was elected to the Dresden Academy, but did not, to his great disappointment, receive a professorship. In 1818 he married Caroline Bommer with whom he had two daughters and a son. In 1836 he suffered a stroke and died on 7 May of that same year in Dresden.
Abbey in an Oak Forest
This painting, that was shown along with the Monk on the Seashore at the Berlin Academy in 1819 was purchased by the King of Prussia. If, in the other painting the artist portrays himself before the infinite vastness of a timeless universe, in this one he shows his funeral. The funeral procession is moving towards the ruined portal, scrap of a lost Gothic cathedral. The dry trees that have lost their leaves, and the church that lost its walls are the background for the dramatic action. Friedrich wrote: “Why, they have asked me several times, do you choose, death, frailty and the sepulcher as the subject of the your paintings. To live eternally, we must often surrender to death.” The composition is structured in horizontal bands without depth – a fact that did not fail to arouse the criticism of his contemporaries (Goethe above all); an elliptical line divides the luminescent sky from the thick, dark wall of fog.
Morning in the Riesengebirge
The presence of the cross in the landscape (mountain or sea, morning or evening, winter or summer) is a constant in Friedrich’s painting: there are at least forty paintings in which we see one. The emphasis on this symbol of sacrifice and salvation is a tie to Luther’s theologia crucis and the artist’s youth in the Protestant community of Greifswald, the small town on the Baltic where he was born and where he loved to return after his move to Dresden. In this painting, where he deals with the theme of the immensity and power of nature, the cross that stands out against the horizon at dawn, seems like a safe haven, a place of comfort and abandonment to God. “The cross stands, resistant to every fire, like the victorious banner of our humanity”, wrote Novalis, poet and contemporary of Friedrich.
Winter Landscape With a Church
In many of Friedrich’s paintings we see a cathedral, symbol of spirituality, a fantastic vision emerging from the fog or darkness. In this painting, the church is also a phantom of an ancient memory and the miracle invoked by the lone traveler leaning on the rock. The association of the forest and cathedral summarizes the meaning of the ancient German tradition that joins the pagan myth of savage nature with Gothic architectural shapes, and ancient tree worship with the Christian altar, manifesting the need for reconciling natural form and human design. The male figure’s role would be entirely marginal if not for the crutches on the snow, an allusion to an affliction of the world for which, before the crucifix he pleads for a remedy. Nor should we exclude the reference to the real wounds that had been inflicted on Germany (buried beneath a significant shroud of snow) by the Napoleonic occupation.
On Board a Sailing Ship
Like many romantic writers and painters, Friedrich entrusted his own metaphor of existence and of the journey to the beyond to ships. Starting in 1815, the sailing ship replaced the more declaratory image of the gothic cathedral in his paintings. This picture, along with The Chalk Cliffs of Rügen and the Moon Rising over the Sea, is part of the triad that that he painted after his 1818 honeymoon in Greifswald. The newlyweds are going towards an ambiguous destination, that mixes the contours of various cities, heavenly Jerusalem, perhaps, the vision of the final harbor. The close-up viewpoint, shifted downward, makes the viewer feel as if he is seeing it from the stern of the ship, the proportions of the craft, the mast and sail, that are enlarged with respect to the preliminary pencil drawing, pull the viewer into the picture and invite him to join the couple on their journey of approach and discovery.
The Chalk Cliffs of Rügen
Friedrich married Caroline Bomber on 21 January 1818. The painting documents the journey the new couple took to Greifswald ,a and specifically the stop on the island of Rügen, where the young artist had often gone on pilgrimages. Once again, portraying the figures from the back, Friedrich creates a clear contrast between the foreground (full and closed) and the background (empty and limitless). The vacuum, where the expanse of sea blends into the horizon, draws the gaze like a magnet. On that uncertain stage of cliffs jutting out over the sea, the three figures, Caroline Bomber, the artist and his brother Christian (standing) are at a junction, attracted by the steep abyss and the spaciousness of the sea ploughed by two distant sailing ships.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
A figure seen from the back, dressed in bourgeois clothes, in a plastic pose, stands out against a solemn mountain landscape. The heroic solitude of the man before the white abyss makes this painting the manifesto of all German romanticism: absorbed in his contemplation of infinity, of something beyond human understanding, he acquires a tragic grandeur. In this painting Friedrich interprets the thoughts of Schelling, Herder and the poet-theologian Kosegarten for whom nature is the only way to reach God. The true philosopher, solitary traveler, separate from the world and at the same time separate from nature, is, therefore, foreign to all community, and from the final outpost of the world, he tests himself against the indescribable vision of the extreme experience. The artist’s use of the raised viewpoint at the height of the figure’s head, favors the identification of the observer who seems to be watching the spectacle of nature from high in mid-air.
Two Men Gazing at the Moon
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna decreed the triumph of the restoration, the start of a period repression and censure for those who, like Friedrich, wanted more democracy and a constitutional regime. When he showed the picture to the Nazarene painter Cornelius who was visiting his studio, Friedrich explained that the two men, dressed in pseudo-renaissance patriotic clothes which liberal students wore, planning “demagogic intrigues.” During the German night, the strong, but distant light of the moon is a sign of hope for change. Two large trees, an oak and a fir frame the scene and seem to capture the figures, while a rocky mass in the foreground evokes the Hunnish tombs, and indirectly, the ancient heart of Germany.
Moon Rising over the Sea
According to the poet Shukowskji, Friedrich would have wanted to hang this painting in sequence with the Chalk Cliffs of Rügen and On Board a Sailing Ship, all the fruit of his joyful trip to his birthplace in 1818. The anchors on the rocks on the foreground, not far from the two women who are embracing affectionately, tell of a landing in safe harbor for those vessels of the soul which, watched by the standing men, plow through the waves at twilight. Once again the painter transcends the natural and symbolic to give voice to the tensions of the subject in the world, the existential dilemma of modern man, suspended between faith in the beyond and the awareness of earthy limitations.
Woman at the Window
This painting is a rendering of the sepia drawings he did in 1805-1806. In an austere room, with bare walls and no objects other than the two bottles and the glass on the windowsill, a woman whom we see from the back, wearing a comfortable dress contemplates a river landscape from the window: poplars, water, the mast of a sailing boat. Friedrich goes into the inside-outside theme that he had already tackled in two views of Dresden – from his studio window (1805-1806). The room, constructed around a rigid perspective scheme seems like a cage, while outside, life flows and presents itself like an “elsewhere” worthy of study. A reference to the artist’s marked spirituality is contained in the upper part of the picture: on the leaded glass window that continues over the upper edge, is a cross – standing out against the pale sky, symbol of Christ and the promise of afterlife.
The Polar Sea
This painting, that was shown in Prague in 1824 and in Berlin in 1826 did not please the contemporary public that criticized the absoluteness of its tragic sentiment. Friedrich, who drew his inspiration from the failure of Perry’s polar expedition in 1819-1820, performed a transfiguration, and invested the painting with existential content. Whether the trapped wreck represents the final leg of the navigatio vitae or the memory of his brother’s death (he drowned in a frozen river at the age of twelve), in a socio-political key, it should be interpreted as the sea of liberty buried in the great frost of Restoration Germany. In any case, the canvas is the parable of an annihilation and a stop, it is the photograph of a cosmic defeat that promises no rewards. Friedrich, as opposed to many romantic artists (Turner, Géricault) avoided the representation of the dramatic culmination of the event and insisted rather on the terrible tragic evidence of an episode that had already occurred.
The Stages of Life
This is one of the last paintings Friedrich completed before he suffered a stroke in June 1835. The title itself is already an allegory, in the manner of western figurative tradition. The final light of day hits the water close to the shore where there are five figures: two children waving a Swedish flag (reference to his native land, Pomerania, once a place of freedom), an adult man, a young woman and an older man, seen from the back and coming forward wearing a patriotic renaissance cloak and cap. The lines of the composition lead to the middle of the bay with five sailing ships, symbolically associated with the figures. The center ship that is moving forward, striking the sails, corresponds to the old man, probably an “old-fashioned “self portrait of the artist. In that agonizing twilight Friedrich takes leaves of his loved ones (children and grandchildren) and of his own life (from childhood to youth) condensing a complex and articulated existential situation into a single vision.
The Great Reserve
Friedrich loved to go to countryside near Dresden and to lose himself in the flat vastness of those lush lands. The extraordinary chromatic symphony of this painting transfigures the spirituality of the marshes northwest of the Saxon capital, where the river overflows and floods the fields, into space. The elliptical line, already used in other paintings separates the luminous evening sky from the earth bathed in evening shadows. And yet another dichotomy characterizes this composition: the impressive clarity of the foreground (with an astounding effect of closeness) and the background stretching towards the infinite horizon (seeking an immeasurable distance).