Caspar David Friedrich, 1774-1840
By Lily Spencer
Caspar David Friedrich was a leading and pioneering member of the German Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. He was born on 5th September, 1774 in Greifswald, Pomerania and studied at the Copenhagen Academy between 1794 and 1798.
His paintings reject the classicism of the previous century, rejecting with it what he believed to be a hyper-materialistic society in favour of contemplation and an appreciation of nature. Rather than venerating order and structure, often imposed by humanity, as the classical tradition did, he places individuals in a monumental landscape, showing its sublimity and emphasising the vulnerability of man in God’s creation. These landscapes tend to include Germanic forests, sharp mountainous terrain and crumbling gothic ruins, not only showing the power and ferocity of nature over humanity but also encompassing a Germanic natural and cultural history that would define the rise of German romantic nationalism over the following decades. These elements can be seen in his Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, (1818) and The Abbey in the Oak Wood (1809-1810). These elements drove the popularity of Friedrich among the German Expressionists of the 1920s and 30s, who sought to reconnect with Germany’s natural roots and culture.
Another iconic element of Friedrich’s paintings are the lonely subjects that frequently have their backs turned to the viewer, as can be seen in The Wanderer and Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1825-30). This allows the viewer to become involved in the scene. The viewer becomes a subject and is encouraged to also contemplate nature, breaking the divide between the picture plane and reality. This form of solitary and seemingly melancholic contemplation anticipates the writings of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and drove the interest in Friedrich amongst the twentieth century existentialists.
After suffering a stroke in 1835 and his death in Dresden in 1840, Friedrich was quickly forgotten in the wake of Romanticism and the beginning of the Realist movement, but he was rediscovered in the twentieth century, particularly by the aforementioned cultural movements. He has since come to define German art and has become one of the most popular German artists and romantic painters.
"Caspar David Friedrich" entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, online. Accessed 5th Sept. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Caspar-David-Friedrich
https://www.caspardavidfriedrich.org/ Accessed 5th Sept. 2017.
"Caspar David Friedrich" profile on the National Gallery, London website. Accessed 5th Sept. 2017, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/caspar-david-friedrich