Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840) was a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important German artist of his generation. He is best known for his mid-period allegorical landscapes which typically feature contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies, morning mists, barren trees or Gothic ruins. His primary interest as an artist was the contemplation of nature, and his often symbolic and anti-classical work seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world. Friedrich’s paintings characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that, according to the art historian Christopher John Murray, directs “the viewer’s gaze towards their metaphysical dimension”.
Friedrich was born in the Swedish Pomeranian town of Greifswald, where he began his studies in art as a youth. He studied in Copenhagen until 1798, before settling inDresden. He came of age during a period when, across Europe, a growing disillusionment with materialistic society was giving rise to a new appreciation of spirituality. This shift in ideals was often expressed through a reevaluation of the natural world, as artists such as Friedrich, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and John Constable (1776–1837) sought to depict nature as a “divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization”.
Friedrich’s work brought him renown early in his career, and contemporaries such as the French sculptor David d’Angers (1788–1856) spoke of him as a man who had discovered “the tragedy of landscape”. Nevertheless, his work fell from favour during his later years, and he died in obscurity, and in the words of the art historian Philip Miller, “half mad”.
As Germany moved towards modernisation in the late 19th century, a new sense of urgency characterised its art, and Friedrich’s contemplative depictions of stillness came to be seen as the products of a bygone age. The early 20th century brought a renewed appreciation of his work, beginning in 1906 with an exhibition of thirty-two of his paintings and sculptures in Berlin. By the 1920s his paintings had been discovered by the Expressionists, and in the 1930s and early 1940s Surrealists and Existentialists frequently drew ideas from his work. The rise of Nazism in the early 1930s again saw a resurgence in Friedrich’s popularity, but this was followed by a sharp decline as his paintings were, by association with the Nazi movement, misinterpreted as having a nationalistic aspect.
It was not until the late 1970s that Friedrich regained his reputation as an icon of the German Romantic movement and a painter of international importance.
Friedrich began his formal study of art in 1790 as a private student of artist Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald in his home city, at which the art department is now named in his honour (Caspar-David-Friedrich-Institut). Quistorp took his students on outdoor drawing excursions; as a result, Friedrich was encouraged to sketch from life at an early age.
Through Quistorp, Friedrich met and was subsequently influenced by the theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten, who taught that nature was a revelation of God. Quistorp introduced Friedrich to the work of the German 17th-century artist Adam Elsheimer, whose works often included religious subjects dominated by landscape, and nocturnal subjects.
During this period he also studied literature and aesthetics with Swedish professor Thomas Thorild. Four years later Friedrich entered the prestigious Academy of Copenhagen, where he began his education by making copies of casts from antique sculptures before proceeding to drawing from life. Living in Copenhagen afforded the young painter access to the Royal Picture Gallery’s collection of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. At the Academy he studied under teachers such as Christian August Lorentzen and the landscape painter Jens Juel. These artists were inspired by the Sturm und Drang movement and represented a midpoint between the dramatic intensity and expressive manner of the budding Romantic aesthetic and the waningneo-classical ideal. Mood was paramount, and influence was drawn from such sources as the Icelandic legend of Edda, the poems of Ossian and Norse mythology.
Friedrich settled permanently in Dresden in 1798. During this early period, he experimented in printmaking with etchings and designs for woodcuts which his furniture-maker brother cut. By 1804 he had produced 18 etchings and four woodcuts; they were apparently made in small numbers and only distributed to friends. Despite these forays into other media, he gravitated toward working primarily with ink, watercolour and sepias. With the exception of a few early pieces, such as Landscape with Temple in Ruins (1797), he did not work extensively with oils until his reputation was more established.
Landscapes were his preferred subject, inspired by frequent trips, beginning in 1801, to the Baltic coast, Bohemia, the Krkonoše and the Harz Mountains. Mostly based on the landscapes of northern Germany, his paintings depict woods, hills, harbors, morning mists and other light effects based on a close observation of nature. These works were modeled on sketches and studies of scenic spots, such as the cliffs on Rügen, the surroundings of Dresden and the river Elbe. He executed his studies almost exclusively in pencil, even providing topographical information, yet the subtle atmospheric effects characteristic of Friedrich’s mid-period paintings were rendered from memory.
These effects took their strength from the depiction of light, and of the illumination of sun and moon on clouds and water: optical phenomena peculiar to the Baltic coast that had never before been painted with such an emphasis.
Friedrich completed the first of his major paintings in 1807, at the age of 34. The Cross in the Mountains, today known as the Tetschen Altar (Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden), is an altarpiece panel commissioned by the Countess of Thun for her family’s chapel in Tetschen, Bohemia. It was to be one of the few commissions the artist received. The altar panel depicts the crucified Christ in profile at the top of a mountain, alone and surrounded by nature. The cross reaches the highest point in the pictorial plane but is presented from an oblique and a distant viewpoint, unusual for a crucifixion scene in Western art. Nature dominates the scene and for the first time in Christian art, an altarpiece showcases a landscape. According to the art historian Linda Siegel, the design of the altarpiece is the “logical climax of many earlier drawings of his which depicted a cross in nature’s world.
On January 21, 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a dyer from Dresden.The couple had three children, with their first, Emma, arriving in 1820. Physiologist and painter Carl Gustav Carus notes in his biographical essays that marriage did not impact significantly on either Friedrich’s life or personality, yet his canvasses from this period, including Chalk Cliffs on Rügen—painted after his honeymoon—display a new sense of levity, while his palette is brighter and less austere.
Human figures appear with increasing frequency in the paintings of this period, which Siegel interprets as a reflection that “the importance of human life, particularly his family, now occupies his thoughts more and more, and his friends, his wife, and his townspeople appear as frequent subjects in his art.
Friedrich’s reputation steadily declined over the final fifteen years of his life. As the ideals of early Romanticism passed from fashion, he came to be viewed as an eccentric and melancholy character, out of touch with the times. Gradually his patrons fell away.By 1820, he was living as a recluse and was described by friends as the “most solitary of the solitary”.
Towards the end of his life he lived in relative poverty and was increasingly dependent on the charity of friends. He became isolated and spent long periods of the day and night walking alone through woods and fields, often beginning his strolls before sunrise.
In June 1835, Friedrich suffered his first stroke, which left him with minor limb paralysis and greatly reduced his ability to paint. As a result he was unable to work in oil; instead he was limited to watercolour, sepia and reworking older compositions. Although his vision remained strong, he had lost the full strength of his hand. Yet he was able to produce a final ‘black painting’, Seashore by Moonlight (1835–36), described by Vaughan as the “darkest of all his shorelines, in which richness of tonality compensates for the lack of his former finesse”. Symbols of death appeared in his other work from this period. Soon after his stroke, the Russian royal family purchased a number of his earlier works, and the proceeds allowed him to travel to Teplitz—in today’s Czech Republic—to recover.
During the mid-1830s, Friedrich began a series of portraits and he returned to observing himself in nature. As the art historian William Vaughan has observed, however, “He can see himself as a man greatly changed. He is no longer the upright, supportive figure that appeared in Two Men Contemplating the Moon in 1819. He is old and stiff… he moves with a stoop”.
By 1838, he was capable only of working in a small format. He and his family were living in poverty and grew increasingly dependent for support on the charity of friends.
When Friedrich died in Dresden in May 1840, his passing was little noticed within the artistic community. By then, his reputation and fame were waning. His artwork had certainly been acknowledged during his lifetime, but not widely. While the close study of landscape and an emphasis on the spiritual elements of nature were commonplace in contemporary art, his work was too original and personal to be well understood.By 1838, his work no longer sold or received attention from critics; the Romantic movement had been moving away from the early idealism that the artist had helped found. After his death, Carl Gustav Carus wrote a series of articles which paid tribute to Friedrich’s transformation of the conventions of landscape painting. However, Carus’ articles placed Friedrich firmly in his time, and did not place the artist within a continuing tradition.Only one of his paintings had been reproduced as a print, and that was produced in very few copies.
Both Friedrich’s life and art are marked with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. This becomes more apparent in his later works, from a time when friends, members of his family and fellow pioneers of early romanticism began to either become distant from him or die.
Art historians and some of his contemporaries attribute the melancholy in his art to the losses suffered during his youth to the bleak outlook of his adulthood,while Friedrich’s pale and withdrawn appearance helped reinforce the popular notion of the “taciturn man from the North”.
Friedrich suffered depressive episodes in 1799, 1803–1805, c.1813, in 1816 and between 1824 and 1826. There are noticeable thematic shifts in the works he produced during these episodes, which see the emergence of such motifs and death symbols as vultures, owls, graveyards and ruins.From 1826 these motifs became a permanent feature of his output, while his use of color became more dark and muted. Carus wrote in 1929 that Friedrich “is surrounded by a thick, gloomy cloud of spiritual uncertainty”, while in 2004 the psychiatrist Carsten Spitzer wrote that he believed during his life, Friedrich suffered prolonged inertia, a suicide attempt and what the artist himself described as a “dreadful weariness”.
Alongside other Romantic painters, Friedrich helped position landscape painting as a major genre within Western art. Of his contemporaries, Friedrich’s style most influenced the painting of Johan Christian Dahl(1788–1857). Among later generations, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) was strongly influenced by his work, and the substantial presence of Friedrich’s works in Russian collections influenced many Russian painters, in particular Arkhip Kuindzhi (c. 1842–1910) and Ivan Shishkin (1832–98). Friedrich’s spirituality anticipated American painters such as Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), Ralph Blakelock (1847–1919), the painters of the Hudson River School and the New England Luminists.
At the turn of the 20th century Friedrich was rediscovered by the Norwegian art historian Andreas Aubert (1851–1913), whose writing initiated modern Friedrich scholarship,and by the Symbolist painters, who valued his visionary and allegorical landscapes.
The Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) would have seen Friedrich’s work during a visit to Berlin in the 1880s. Munch’s 1899 print The Lonely Ones echoes Friedrich’s Rückenfigur (back figure), although in Munch’s work the focus has shifted away from the broad landscape and toward the sense of dislocation between the two melancholy figures in the foreground.
Friedrich’s landscapes exercised a strong influence on the work of German artist Max Ernst (1891–1976), and as a result other Surrealists came to view Friedrich as a precursor to their movement. In 1934, the Belgian painter René Magritte (1898–1967) paid tribute in his work The Human Condition, which directly echoes motifs from Friedrich’s art in its questioning of perception and the role of the viewer.
A few years later, the Surrealist journal Minotaure featured Friedrich in a 1939 article by critic Marie Landsberger, thereby exposing his work to a far wider circle of artists. The influence of The Wreck of Hope (or The Sea of Ice) is evident in the 1940–41 paintingTotes Meer by Paul Nash (1889–1946), a fervent admirer of Ernst. Friedrich’s work has been cited as an inspiration by other major 20th-century artists, includingMark Rothko (1903–70),Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) and Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945).
Friedrich’s Romantic paintings have also been singled out by writer Samuel Beckett (1906–89), who, standing before Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, said “This was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.”
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Article publié pour la première fois le 12/02/2013