Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840) was a 19th century German Romantic painter, considered by many critics to be one of the finest representatives of the movement.
Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, Hither Pomerania. Relevant as a background to his work are the strict Lutheran creed of his father and his early familiarity with death: his mother died when he was seven, his sister succumbed to typhus fever and his brother drowned in a frozen lake, allegedly while trying to save Friedrich, under whose feet the ice had cracked. In 1790 he began studying art with Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald and literature and aesthetics from Swedish professor Thomas Thorild.
In 1794 he entered the prestigious Academy of Copenhagen, and in 1798 he settled in Dresden. He often painted with India ink, watercolor and sepia ink. It is unclear when he finally took up oil painting, but it was surely after the age of 30. Landscapes were his preferred subject. 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.
In 1808, a time when Friedrich was growing in popularity, he exhibited one of his most controversial paintings, The Cross in the Mountains (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). For the first time in Christian art, a pure landscape was the panel of an altarpiece. The cross rises highest in the composition, but is viewed obliquely and at a distance. Friedrich said that the rays of the evening sun depicted the setting of the old, pre-Christian world. The mountain symbolizes an immovable faith, while the fir trees represent hope. Friedrich painted several other landscapes that incorporate crosses.
He was acquainted with Philipp Otto Runge, another notable German painter of the Romantic period, and gained the admiration of the poet Goethe. He was also a friend of Norwegian painter Johann Christian Dahl and Georg Friedrich Kersting. In 1810 he became a member of the Academy of Berlin. In addition to Christianity, references to German folklore became increasingly prominent, underscoring Friedrich's patriotism during the French occupation of Pomerania. Following his marriage to Caroline Bommer in 1818, he began to portray feminine characters in his paintings. Cretacic Rocks in Rügen, painted during his honeymoon, is a good example of this development.
With dawns and dusks constituting important parts of his landscapes, Friedrich's own dusk years were characterized by a growing pessimism. This is reflected in his work, which becomes darker, showing a fearsome monumentalism. The Sea of Ice perhaps summarizes Friedrich's ideas and aims at this point, though in such a radical way that the painting was not well received. Between 1830 and 1835 he became more reclusive, and he dismissed the opinions of critics and the public by only painting for his family and friends—yet his art from this period can be considered among his finest. In 1835, a stroke caused him limb paralysis and he was never able to paint again.
Following his earlier sepia drawings and watercolors (mainly naturalistic and topographical), Friedrich took up oil painting sometime after the age of thirty. His paintings were modeled on his sketches and studies of scenic spots, like the cliffs on Rügen, the surroundings of Dresden or Elbe. Later compositions were more symbolic and symmetrically balanced. The Tetschen Altar is perhaps his first stylistically mature painting. It depicts the crucified Christ in profile at the top of a mountain, alone, surrounded by nature. At his time this work was not unanimously accepted; however, this was his first appraised painting.
His well-known, especially Romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog impressed Karl Friedrich Schinkel (later Prussia's most famous classicist architect) so much that he gave up painting and took up architecture.
Friedrich was almost forgotten by the general public in the second half of 19th century, and it was only at turn of the century that he was rediscovered by the Symbolist painters, who valued his visionary and allegorical landscapes. It was this aspect of his work that caused Max Ernst and other Surrealists to see him as a precursor to their movement.
Friedrich also sketched memorial monuments and sculptures for mausoleums, reflecting his obsession with death and the afterlife. Some of the funereal art in Dresden's cemeteries is his. Some of his masterpieces were lost in the fire that destroyed Munich's Glass Palace (1931) and in the bombing of Dresden in World War II.
Philosophy and motives
The key to understanding Friedrich's ideas and work is the link between landscape and religion. The majority of his best-known paintings are expressions of a religious mysticism. His landscapes seek not just the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the Classic conception, but an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the lonely contemplation of an overwhelming Nature. Friedrich said, "The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him." Colossal skies, storms, mist, ruins, scattered tracks of life (ancient altars, wrecked ships) and crosses bearing witness to the presence of God are frequent elements in Friedrich's landscapes.
Even some of his apparently non-symbolic paintings contain inner meanings, either religious or political, clues to which are provided either by Friedrich's writings or those of his literary friends. For example, a landscape showing a ruined abbey in the snow, Abbey under Oak Trees (1810; Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin), can be appreciated on one level as a bleak, winter scene, but was also intended to represent both the church shaken by the Reformation and the transience of earthly things.
Alongside other romantic painters, such as J. M. W. Turner or John Constable, Friedrich made landscape painting a major genre in Western art. Friedrich's style influenced the painting of the aforementioned Dahl, but whether the successors to his painting style achieved his mastery and depth is debated. Arnold Böcklin was strongly influenced by his work, and perhaps as well the painters of the American Hudson River School, the Rocky Mountain School, the New England Luminists and American painters like Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock.