Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

In 1947 — 50, the world-renowned Italian art critic Lionello Venturi, whose authoritative opinion was rarely challenged by his contemporaries, published a two-volume book on the art of the preceding century. Each volume consisted of essays devoted to individual artists, nineteen in all. It was these masters, wrote the author in his introduction, who created “works of an absolute artistic excellence… The choice of these painters is based on the assurance of their artistic perfection and on the admiration which, inspite of critical doubts, the paintings themselves make well-nigh infinite.”

Moonrise over the sea Oil on canvas. 135 X 170 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Moonrise over the sea Oil on canvas. 135 X 170 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

The first volume presented artists active between the French Revolution and Impressionism: the Spanish Goya, English Constable and French David, Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Daumier and Courbet. These were truly brilliant masters, whose reputations as painters have not since declined; however, today, almost forty years after Venturi’s book appeared, much has changed, including tastes, standards and the general approach to the art of the past century. And we may now argue, without fear of partiality, that Venturi’s selection is neither indisputable nor definitive. The list of great artists from the early nineteenth century is certainly not limited to the eight names and therefore must be expanded, and one of the first to be included must be Caspar David Friedrich.
In our day Friedrich is perhaps the best-known and most vivid figure in nineteenth-century German art. His paintings are not only comparable to the finest canvases by artists from other European schools, but in some way surpass them. In proof of this are the triumphal success of Friedrich’s exhibitions held by various museums of the world in honour of the two- hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth, and the multitude of diverse publications devoted to him. His works, however, waited one hundred and fifty years for this widespread popularity.
Friedrich is one of those artists whose works immediately excite a brief public interest, more scandalous than sincere, and draw hostile or cursory criticism, finding appreciation only within a narrow circle of friends and colleagues. The essential idea of Friedrich’s paintings was alien and incomprehensible to his contemporaries, and it was only many decades after the artist’s death, when his very name seemed to be buried in oblivion, that these works unexpectedly drew universal attention. Spectators suddenly discovered that their own moods and most secret feelings were echoed in these paintings, while specialists found majesty of conception, nobility of spirit and depth of thought in them. Amazed by the refinement and unusual manner of execution, they began to regard these works as an essential, previously missing link in the general history of culture.

Moonrise Sepia. 24.5 X 34.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Moonrise Sepia. 24.5 X 34.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Morning in the mountains Oil on canvas. 135 X 170 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Morning in the mountains Oil on canvas. 135 X 170 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

This “discovery” of Friedrich by the general public occurred at the turn of the century, catalyzed by Post-Impressionism and the powerful wave of the Symbolists Neo-Romanticism on the one hand, and twentieth-century art, then being born in heated disputes, on the other. These movements drew into the orbit of cultural and historical interests artistically valuable works hitherto overlooked, and stimulated the first reevaluation of the creative legacy of the previous century. In Germany, fame came to Friedrich immediately following the opening of the renowned centenary exhibition “German Art: 1775 — 1875” in 1906. Thereafter his paintings came out of storage in museum basements and appeared in permanent displays. Friedrich served with increasing frequency as the subject of scholarly articles, large monographs, and popular illustrated editions and art books, while his statements on art, aphorisms and letters were published for the first time. This interest in Friedrich’s work stimulated to a great extent a meticulous study of all nineteenth-century German art, which led to a re-examination of its contribution to European art and resulted in the rediscovery of the entire Romantic epoch. Earlier Germany’s contribution to nineteenth-century European culture had been associated with the names of great philosophers, musicians and writers, and painting was not counted among its imposing achievements. Now it became clear that German artists, and foremost among them Friedrich, had made an important contribution to European art.
Not surprisingly, Friedrich’s fame gradually outgrew national boundaries. In London, in 1959, his pictures proved to be one of the main attractions at the huge exhibition “The Romantic Movement”, which was the outcome of fifty years’ study of early nineteenth- century European art. This exhibition once and for all established Friedrich’s place among the most outstanding masters of the nineteenth century, and when a reputable art magazine, Connaissance des Arts, named ten works which the Louvre “was short of” to be perfect, one of them was a painting by the German Romantic. Only relatively recently did the Louvre fill up this gap by acquiring a modest landscape, thereby becoming one of the few European museums boasting a Friedrich work.

Memories of the riesengebirge Oil on canvas. 72 X 102 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Memories of the riesengebirge Oil on canvas. 72 X 102 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Most of the artist’s works are to be found now in German museums, particularly in Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg. There are a few paintings by Friedrich outside of Germany, with the exception of the large collection at the Hermitage in Leningrad, which is remarkable not only for its size but includes such indisputable masterpieces as Nighttime in the Harbour (Sisters), On a Sailing Ship and Moonrise over the Sea.
Almost all the works in the representative collection of the Hermitage came to Russia during Friedrich’s lifetime, directly from his studio and selected or suggested by the artist himself. In 1820 the artist’s studio was visited by Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich, the future Emperor of Russia. The grand duke knew about Friedrich from his wife, the daughter of the Prussian king Frederick William III, who had for a short period favoured the painter. At this time two paintings were bought (Nighttime in the Harbour and On a Sailing Ship) and in all likelihood some other pictures were commissioned.

Owl in Flight Sepia. 28 X 24.2 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Owl in Flight Sepia. 28 X 24.2 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

However, of much greater significance to the future Russian collection was another visit — that of Vasily Zhukovsky. The celebrated Russian poet, thoroughly versed in all that human genius had created, a translator who enriched Russian culture with classical, still unsurpassed translations of Homer’s Odyssey, and the poetry of Goethe, Schiller, Uhland and many others, immediately recognized the unique personality and superb creativity of this kindred Romantic spirit. Their first meeting laid the groundwork for many years of friendly exchange, brought to a close only by the artist’s death. The friendship was based on the intimacy of two Romantic souls, and was so strong that the poet, over a period of twenty years, supported his friend during the hardest moments of his life.
Zhukovsky met with Friedrich whenever he was in Dresden, and his letters to Russia tell of long discussions on art, and visits together to museums and exhibitions. These letters also reveal a quite different aspect of their relationship: Zhukovsky understood, probably very early on, that the unsociable and reclusive Friedrich was exceptionally helpless in practical matters, and his family often suffered from financial hardships. For Zhukovsky, to understand meant to help, and his favoured position at the Russian court (first as the Empress’ teacher of Russian and later as tutor to the heir) allowed him to substantially affect Friedrich’s fortunes. Upon every feasible occasion he recommended that the German’s works be acquired for the palaces of St. Petersburg and its environs, and, although unfortunately not all the works sent to Russia have survived, it is these purchases which make up the Hermitage collection.

SWANS IN REEDS Oil on canvas. 34 X 44 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

SWANS IN REEDS Oil on canvas. 34 X 44 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

The greatest loss, however, has been the disappearance of Zhukovsky’s own collection. He was not a particularly rich man, but in his sincere desire to help Friedrich he regularly commissioned and bought works by the artist. His lost collection, which today would have been coveted by any museum, included more than fifty drawings, and we know of the paintings from Ivan Kireyevsky, a prominent literary critic, one of the founders of Slavophilism. In a letter of January 12, 1830, Kireyevsky described Zhukovsky’s St. Petersburg apartment: “I would like to describe this room to you, for its paintings impressed me strongly. . . The wall is hung with pictures by Friedrich. In the centre is a large canvas showing the night, the moon and under it an owl, whose flight implies that it sees; the painting’s whole structure reveals the soul of a poet. On either side of the owl hang two small, square paintings; the first a gift from Alexander Turgenev, who commissioned it from Friedrich. The distance, the sky, the moon; in the foreground three men, two Turgenevs and Zhukovsky, resting against a lattice. . . The second painting: nighttime, the sea and the wreckage of three anchors on the shore. The third: evening, the sun has just set and the west is still golden, while the remaining sky, gently azure, blends with a mountain of the same color. In the foreground a gravestone lies in thick tall grass, and a veiled woman in a black dress is approaching it, seemingly afraid that someone might see her. I liked this painting best of all. The fourth, next to it, shows a Jewish grave: a huge boulder rests on three smaller stones; there is no one about; all is empty and seems cold. The green grass is stirred in spots by the wind; the sky is grey and studded with clouds; the sun has already set and occasional reflections of its rays still glow on the clouds. On the other wall hang four more paintings from Friedrich’s brush. One apparently shows autumn, with green grass below and the bare branches of trees above, a cemetery monument, a cross, a gazebo and a cliff. All is dark and wild: on the whole nature with Friedrich is somewhat gloomy and always the same. This is the island of Riigen where he lived for many years. Another painting is of a crumbling stone wall; the moon shines from above through a narrow aperture. Below, the gates allow a glimpse of the almost imperceptible landscape — trees, the sky, a mountain and greenery. The third painting shows an enormous iron railing and gates dissolving into a cemetery overgrown with coarse, impassable grass. The fourth painting depicts ruins which formed a vault with a column in the middle, and a woman resting on it. She has her back turned to us, but her pose shows that she has been here a long time, buried in thought, or lost in watching something, or maybe she is waiting, or contemplating — all these ideas chase each other in our heads and lend this painting a rare magic.”

RUINS OF THE OYBIN MONASTERY (DREAMER) Oil on canvas. 27 X 21 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

RUINS OF THE OYBIN MONASTERY (DREAMER) Oil on canvas. 27 X 21 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Numerous witnesses to Zhukovsky’s special feeling for the artist have been preserved in the correspondence and memoirs of contemporaries. For example, Alexandra Smirnova, a close friend of Pushkin’s and one of the educated women of that era, wrote: “His lodgings were hung with paintings; his favourite picture was a landscape by Friedrich — a Jewish cemetery on a moonlit night. . . which he so admired.”
At Zhukovsky’s urging, his friends also helped Friedrich when visiting Dresden, as evidenced by the fact that one of the paintings mentioned by Kireyevsky was commissioned from Friedrich by Alexander Turgenev, an eminent Russian statesman and historian, and then was presented to Zhukovsky. Turgenev eloquently described in his diary his visit to the artist: “Today we were at Friedrich’s studio. We listened to him and enjoyed his paintings greatly. He has a certain likeable bonhomie, and his pictures are infused with a Romantic imagination. He usually expresses a single, yet indefinite, thought or feeling in his works. One can muse over them, but it is impossible to clearly understand them, for they are not clear even in his own soul. They look like visions or dreams seen during the night. He often selects a most simple arrangement of natural objects — an ice floe, tossed about in the sea; several trees growing in a valley; his window (which, by the way, affords a marvellous view of the Elbe); a knight meditating among ruins or by a monument; a monk staring fixedly at the ground or into the distance — but it all touches the soul, immerses one in dreaminess, it all speaks, not distinctly but still powerfully, to the imagination. He says that he can explain neither his thoughts nor the paintings representing them, but that each person should be able to find himself, that is, his own thoughts in another’s depiction: thus, the owl among ominous clouds; thus, the crown of thorns in the iridescent sunshine” (entry of August 6, 1825).

View of Putbus Watercolour. 24.9 X 37.6 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

View of Putbus Watercolour. 24.9 X 37.6 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

In 1838, having seen the ailing artist, Zhukovsky wrote to St. Petersburg: “The poor fellow has been almost paralyzed for four years, he cannot paint and is in dire need.” And once again, these were not simply sympathetic phrases but vital, life-saving help. There is a file in the Leningrad State Archives: “By proposal of privy counsellor Zhukovsky on the issue of a grant to the artist Friedrich’s family, residing in Dresden.” The file contains a record of the dispatch of one hundred and fifty talers to Dresden.
It is unlikely that today we can even estimate how many of Friedrich’s paintings and drawings came to Russia, much less trace the fate of all of them. They were scattered among individual collections for many years, where the artist’s name gradually was forgotten along with the paintings’ value to their owners. Thus, in 1859, during a complete cataloguing of the paintings owned by the tsar’s family, Friedrich’s name was frequently spelled in a wrong way or simply disappeared, replaced by the words “unknown artist”.
Only with the reawakened interest in Friedrich did his distinctive individuality and unique pictorial manner make it possible to unerringly attribute all his works fortunate enough to have survived. Thanks to the efforts of Antonina Izerghina, for a long time the curator of German painting in the Hermitage, Friedrich’s works were concentrated in this museum, and the collection has now grown into one of the Hermitage’s most representative sections of nineteenth-century art.
Despite his popularity, Friedrich to this day remains a “closed” artist for many viewers, not because his paintings are complex, but rather the opposite, because they are apparently simple, seemingly dry and unemotional. Friedrich’s works do in fact entirely lack the spectacular pictorial effects, the vibrating expressiveness of the brushwork, the color variety or the gradations of light and shade, which since Impressionism have come to be almost synonymous with great art, even in relation to the Old Masters. Friedrich worked towards an entirely different goal, living as he did on the interface between two epochs, when the old systems of art were collapsing and decaying, and new paths were being found. Friedrich was one of those who, in that complex transitional age, consistently dissociated himself from outdated traditions and boldly evolved new artistic approaches.
Certainly, during Friedrich’s lifetime few were capable of understanding this, and only for an extremely brief period were his paintings received warmly at exhibitions in Berlin and Dresden, finding buyers even in distant lands. But buyers noticed only what was comprehensible at a superficial glance. Illustrative of this is the Prussian king Frederick William Ill’s evaluation of a landscape bought by him in 1812: “This is a wonderful painting; when I was travelling to Toeplitz, I arose early and enjoyed the delightful scenery. The towering mountain peaks looked like the ruffled sea… Anyone who has never seen such a sight would think that it simply can’t exist in real life.” Zhukovsky, when recommending the purchase of one of Friedrich’s paintings, deliberately emphasized those aspects which would be certain to impress his correspondents: “There is nothing dreamy about his paintings, on the contrary, it is their accuracy which is appealing, for each one touches a deep memory of something familiar. If you find here more than the eye sees, it is because the painter perceived nature not as an artist in search of material for his brush, but as a human being full of feeling and imagination.”
Buyers, however, were turning cold to Friedrich towards the late 1820s. In artistic matters the public generally wanted exact resemblance to reality, “ennobled” with a slight touch of melancholic dreaminess, and this demand was now being met quite satisfactorily by artists of the Diisseldorf school. In comparison with the light and unambiguous literary themes of their pictures, Friedrich’s works came to seem too abstracted and burdened with mysticism both frightening and inappropriate for middle-class interior decoration.

MOUNTAIN LANDSCAPE Oil on canvas. 45 X 58 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

MOUNTAIN LANDSCAPE Oil on canvas. 45 X 58 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Owl on a Grave Sepia. 25.9 X 22.2 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Owl on a Grave Sepia. 25.9 X 22.2 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The fundamental novelty of Friedrich’s searchings did not, however, go unnoticed — his works failed to escape a harsh and relentless criticism of those who defended the eternal norms and rules of art. “Friedrich’s picture deviates from the usual path. It opens a new, hitherto unknown, at least to me, notion of the art of landscape.. . And when I see talent submitting itself to a tendency which violates good taste, which robs painting, especially landscape, of its specific excellence, which is nothing other than an abominable testimony to the calamitous spirit of the present times — then to keep silent would be pusillanimous.” Thus in 1808 wrote the well known historian Friedrich Wilhelm Basilius von Ramdohr about Friedrich’s painting The Cross in the Mountains, an altarpiece for the chapel in SchloB Tetschen (Gemaldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden), whose unusual compositional design excited a wide and sensational public interest.
Even Goethe, who at first supported Friedrich (with his help two of the artist’s sepias received prizes at a Weimar exhibition in 1805), irritated by the audacity of young artists who were, in his view, subverting eternal values, remarked in 1815 about Monk at the Sea (SchloB Charlottenburg, West Berlin) that “the picture by Friedrich can be viewed while standing on one’s head.”11 Goethe, admittedly, remained great even in his annoyance, anticipating the accusation made over a hundred years later that in abstract painting you cannot tell top from bottom — he saw, while rejecting it for himself, the quality which forced theoreticians of twentieth-century art to recognize Romanticism as one of the roots of modern art.
It would nevertheless be unjust only to reproach the nineteenth century with intolerance and incomprehension. In 1841, at the moment of triumph for the principles of the Diisseldorf school, the book De Г Art en Allemagne (On the Art of Germany) by the French author Hippolyte Fortoul appeared. Shortly after Friedrich’s death, Fortoul saw one of his paintings in the halls of the Dresden Academy and wrote: “In this painting everything indicates that its author was one of the daring opponents of exact imitation.”12 It is improbable that Fortoul knew of Friedrich’s statements on art, or he could not have failed to use one of them: “A picture must be perceived as a picture, a creation of human hands, and not try to deceive us with perfect resemblance to nature.”
It is precisely because of his understanding of the picture as a creative design or construction built by the artist on a flat surface that Friedrich appeared to be necessary for the twentieth century. In Friedrich’s opinion, constructing a picture did not mean destroying traditional composition, which was compulsory, as he believed, for any artistic work, because it was founded on the laws of perception. But constructing unprecedentedly broadened the range of expressive means and opened an escape route from the restrictive rules enforced at the time. It made possible an equilibrium between the real, earthly (in the Romantic terminology) and spiritual, ethereal worlds, which was the central problem of Romanticism. Friedrich’s entire creative work conforms to the basic philosophical principle of German Romantic art, the idea that the world of nature is indivisibly united with man’s internal spiritual world. Composers, poets, writers and artists — all searched for an individual, emotionally perceptible form in which to convey this Romantic concept. Friedrich found only one medium, that of landscape, suitable for the embodiment of his imagery.

Clift gates to the Neurathen Watercolour. 27.8 X 24.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Clift gates to the Neurathen Watercolour. 27.8 X 24.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Coffin at a Grave Sepia. 39.3 X 39.4 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Coffin at a Grave Sepia. 39.3 X 39.4 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

He almost exclusively painted landscapes of concrete places he had seen and knew in his native Germany, but even in these he proclaimed his right to originality and independence, commenting bitterly that “to the gentlemen art judges, our German sun, moon, lakes and rivers aren’t enough. They must be Italian to aspire to grandeur and beauty.”14 To a certain extent this devotion to the national landscape was kindled by the rising patriotism which gripped Germany in the fever of the anti-Napoleonic wars. But Friedrich’s conscious self-limitation to landscape was not simply the result of his likes and dislikes of various genres, but was motivated by reasons of a higher order.
In the nineteenth century Academicism, the official dominating system of artistic thought, reserved the right to pass final judgement on all questions in the fine arts. It alone created an artist’s reputation, for the selection and presentation of pictures at exhibitions depended upon it. Finally, academic precepts shaped the aesthetic tastes of the clientele — patrons and buyers — which inevitably condemned all nonconforming artists to an impoverished existence. Friedrich’s life and the history of Impressionism provide sad examples of this.
The central academic postulate maintained that a painting’s worth is determined by the grandeur of the chosen theme (religious, historical, mythological, etc.), its antithesis was the fount from which the struggle for new approaches, for untraditional artistic means and methods, began to flow forth in the nineteenth century.
In the academic system of values landscape as an independent branch of painting occupied but a minor place, and it was regulated by fixed norms somewhat less avidly than other genres, although still severely enough. For the adherents of academic canons, landscapes were too shallow in content, too themeless, although of course they had always been painted in great numbers and had the right to exist, even being allowed in museums and exhibitions. But this official recognition had one immutable condition: paintings either adhered to the style once and for all established as “ideal landscape”, a representation purged of the imperfections of lowly, coarse nature, or else they were judged merely the dabblings of dilettantes, captivating trifles unworthy of a serious critic’s attention. Landscape painting, therefore, stood on the periphery of vigilantly guarded academic territory and naturally, given a more independent status, new trends within it encountered less resistance, allowing the painting of the nineteenth century to achieve its greatest heights in landscape.
Two of the previously unchallengeable components of Academicism — classical linear perspective, which creates an illusion of space, and modelling of the plastic volumes with light and shade — were modified by the explorations and discoveries of nineteenth-century artists. It is not illusorily represented space and volume but rather the very elements of the artistic language, line and color, that came to define the emotional and objective content of an artist’s work.
As in music each instrument plays a separate part, all together flowing into an integrated sound, so in Friedrich’s landscapes color and line play their individual roles in creating a Romantic picture. The severe, irreproachably precise linear design with accented contours lends his paintings a persuasive verisimilitude. The details which comprise the visually perceived world are meticulously selected and, to the careless eye, seem almost exactly rendered. But this is not a merely topographical record of nature, but its Romantic evocation, whose precision is only inferred. Peering closely at the paintings we understand that they do not reproduce reality, but rather designate its most general characteristics, essential for recognition. (Friedrich does not fear openly using a ruler, and in his sepias a puncture left by the point of compasses can often be found marking the centre of the sun or moon.)

Boat on the A rkona Cape Sepia. 24 X 41 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Boat on the A rkona Cape Sepia. 24 X 41 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

This graphical, flat treatment allowed the artist to create the illusion of space no less effectively than through traditional means. Overcoming the rationalism of classicist landscape, he rejected the usual division of the canvas into planes connected by a plastic unity. He expressed the Romantic idea of the interrelationship of the finite and the infinite, the individual and the universal, by counterposing the foreground to the background. The absence of a middle ground — which, though, does not seem artificial or deliberate, inasmuch as it is dictated by the subject matter — creates the typically Romantic tension. As a result, the artist sometimes produced amazingly bold fragmentary compositions (On a Sailing Ship), anticipatory of Impressionist innovations.
Finally, colour bears the basic emotional content in Friedrich’s paintings. “Here,” he commented on one picture, “images and paints express what words cannot convey.” It is mainly to the color scheme that the artist’s best works owe their special Romantic aura. Once again we see a new, in comparison with the old art, approach: color does not create the illusion of light, causing the figures and objects to cast shadows and conform to the laws of chiaroscuro modelling, nor does it produce the illusion of texture. If so color would contradict the linear design and compositional arrangement and break the unity of the Romantic intention. Friedrich’s pictures differ in this both from classicist painting, which as a rule treated color as an attribute of an object, and from realist painting, in which color is a qualitative indicator of materiality. In Friedrich’s art color is not subordinate to line; the direct impact of a color patch is used. The choice of motif itself predetermines a dominant tonality of the color range, not infrequently reduced to a monochrome (The Harbour at Night). Characteristically, the artist liked sepia, a monochromatic technique, throughout his creative career. Friedrich also gives color a symbolic meaning; it perfectly agrees with the Romantic system of emblems (the sea, a ship, night, an anchor, ruins, an owl, a cross over a grave, etc.) All this gives Friedrich’s pictures the wonderful musical quality, which led the renowned German art critic Ludwig Justi to compare one nighttime landscape with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
The major collision of the Romantic epoch is generally known — the conflict of the creative personality with the stifling complacency of prosperous burghers, content with simple and down-to-earth realities. The French painters Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix expressed their rejection of their time’s social and moral principles by means of passionate, dynamic subjects, frequently with pointed contemporary implications, or by exotic medieval or oriental settings.
Such spontaneously displayed emotion was alien to the art of the German Romantic, characterized by restraint and the absence of external action. His only hero is a reclusive meditator, retiring from everyday activities and yearning for harmony with the universe; a person beyond social ties and alone with nature — therefore he is always depicted from behind, gazing into the infinite distance.
This favourite device of Friedrich was not his invention. After Giotto European artists used it very often to destroy the flatness of the canvas and eliminate the barrier between the viewer and the illu- sionary world of the painting. This arrangement led the viewer to feel as if he were standing behind the foreground figures, peering above and around their heads and shoulders: he became involved in the composition together with its participants.
This is more or less how Friedrich’s use of the device is usually understood. His close friend Carl Gustav Carus, in Neun Briefe iiber Landschaftsma- lerei (Nine Letters on Landscape Painting), published during the artist’s lifetime, wrote: “The lonely figure, lost in contemplation in a desolate landscape, leads the viewer mentally to take its place.” 16 But such an interpretation is too obvious and too sedated in a Biedermeier fashion, dismissing the tension of the Romantic outlook on the world.
Romanticism affirmed that sensory perception of the ideal was unattainable; man, in his whole evolution, had lost his harmony with nature, and his efforts to re-establish the lost union proved futile. “Our feeling for nature,” states Friedrich Schiller in his treatise Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (On Naive and Sentimental Poetry), “is reminiscent of a sick man’s feeling for health.” And therefore Friedrich did not at all create the feeling of the viewer’s involvement; we stand before his painting, and before nature he portrays, as outsiders only. When the artist depicts his characters with their backs to us, this is not a compositional device of uniting us with them; on the contrary, it is the barrier between the Romantic longing (Sehnsucht) for the ideal and the boundless world of dreams.
The concept of an unattainable ideal led the Romantics to the logical conclusion that art is at root fragmented, which conflicted with the need for paintings finished in a purely professional sense. Compositional fragmentation was characteristic of Romantic literature, where numerous works lacked conclusive denouements and heroes’ fates remained unresolved, e.g. in Don Juan, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Kater Murr and many others. But in the fine arts this resulted in an infinite number of incomplete pieces, each of which expressed one aspect of the artist’s inner self.

Caspar David Friedrich

ON A SAILING SHIP
Oil on canvas. 71 X 56 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Friedrich solved this dilemma by producing cycles of paintings on a single theme, a device which would later become the most vital feature of the new art. It is not merely coincidental that his subject matter is reduced to only a few motifs — the sea, mountains, moonlit nights, times of the day, cemeteries, owls, ruins, windows. The artist apparently conceived not isolated works but cycles of paintings bound together by one underlying idea.
Three of the Hermitage pictures, On a Sailing Ship, Nighttime in the Harbour and Moonrise over the Sea, were painted in a short period from 1818 to 1820, the happiest years of Friedrich’s life. These works reflect impressions the artist accumulated on a trip with his wife, six months after their wedding, to his birthplace, Greifswald in North Germany, and from there to the island of Riigen with his brother’s family.
Friedrich’s journeys were an essential step in his creative process, for while travelling he built up the store of observations without which a Romantic imagination is bankrupt. In the summer of 1818 the pages of his travel album were covered with cursory sketches of compositional arrangements and painstaking studies of details in pencil — moving ships, sails, masts, a figure on the bow of a boat, etc. As a rule, later he used such drawings freely, out of context with the original situation, and sometimes after many years, combining them with other, unrelated drawings. The artist once said that he could not begin a painting until he had seen it completed in his imagina” tion, but on this occasion his recent drawings were used for the picture On a Sailing Ship soon after his return to Dresden. Friedrich’s happy life circumstances for the first time coincided with his inner state, and in consequence he made a painting brighter in spirit than any before or after.
The conclusion that the figures are Friedrich himself and his wife is completely justified, although this is rather a spiritual than physical self-portrait. It might appear that the composition, daring for the early nineteenth century — the lower edge of the canvas cuts the deck off — makes us passengers of the sailing ship and witnesses of the happiness enveloping the young couple. This, however, is not so, for then the picture would be a genre scene devoid of Romantic mood. The close-up foreground, the exceedingly precise depiction of the rigging, and the boat’s lifted bow, intersecting the line of the horizon, all create a sharp visual contrast with the hazy coastline and the conventionally painted sea. We see not a ship ploughing through the water, but a Romantic vision — a vessel soaring in mid-air over the sea.

VIEW OF THE SCHMIEDEBERGE RIDGE FROM WARMBRUNN Watercolour. 26.1 X 35.1 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

VIEW OF THE SCHMIEDEBERGE RIDGE FROM WARMBRUNN Watercolour. 26.1 X 35.1 cm The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Window with a View of a Park Sepia. 39.8 X 30.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Window with a View of a Park Sepia. 39.8 X 30.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

The painting glorifies not ordinary earthly love, but the cult of Romantic friendship, which for the Romantic was an incomparably higher form of spiritual union. This idea is embodied in many of Friedrich’s pictures, usually in the form of two male figures, e.g. in his Sunset (Brothers) and Moonrise. But the journey in 1818 brought together four relatives — on Riigen the artist was with his brother’s family — and they appeared in subsequent works which revealed some other facets of Romantic friendship.
The Nighttime in the Harbour was completed in and displayed at an exhibition of the Dresden Academy in the autumn of that year. Usually the artist held himself to neutral titles, but this painting was listed in the catalogue as Sisters on a Balcony at the Harbour. Starry Night. Even the title itself indicates the spiritual closeness of the two standing female figures, Friedrich’s and his brother’s wives — a unique motif in Friedrich’s work, whose meaning would be unclear outside the context of the 1818 trip. In the painting On a Sailing Ship, showing the artist and his wife, the Romantic union is achieved through Hope and Love; the scene of the Nighttime in the Harbour personifies Faith.
Friedrich was a deeply religious man, and his symbolism goes back to the Christian tradition, in this case that of Faith, Hope and Love. But it is not totally identical, as some specialists of Friedrich’s art have concluded, to religious revelation. Romantic ideals do not amount to a religious severance from the earthly world, rather they are opposed to it.
The picture Nighttime in the Harbour is the most characteristic example of Romantic constructing: it is “collected” from diverse impressions and demonstrates how indispensable these were for the artist’s creative method. The slender masts continue the verticals of the two female figures and, in order to rhythmically intensify the women’s implied unity, near the harbour rise the four-towered Marktkirche and the Rote Turm of the inland town of Halle. Friedrich was once in Halle and depicted its architecture here so exactly that it is easily recognizable. Only the cross with two mourners, a memorial to lost sailors, has no real prototype and is a creation of the artist’s fantasy.
Friedrich turned several more times to the 1818 trip, for example, it undoubtedly summoned up The Cliffs of Riigen (Oskar Reinhart’s bequest, Winterthur) and the Moonrise over the Sea. In 1821 Zhukovsky wrote: “I have found at Friedrich’s several just begun paintings — one of which you would surely enjoy having, as it supplements the canvas which you already own. A moonlit night, a storm has just passed, and all the clouds have scudded to the distant horizon, leaving half the sky completely open; the moon hangs just over the dark clouds illuminating their edges; the sea is quiet, the low coast rock- strewn, an anchor among the rocks; in the distance, at the very edge of the sea the sail of a ship running for shore is visible (the canvas shows the return of those who were departing their homeland in your painting) — and it is awaited.”
This description, written of course under the influence of conversations with Friedrich, makes clear that the artist intended three pictures as a series with a joint unfolding of the image, and that he wanted them to be hung together. With this in mind, he invested the last one with paramount importance, and it is his largest canvas. The result is an original Romantic cycle in the typical German triptych form. Its emotional impact is enhanced when the three parts are perceived together.

NIGHTTIME IN THE HARBOUR Oil on canvas. 74 X 52 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

NIGHTTIME IN THE HARBOUR Oil on canvas. 74 X 52 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Owl in a Gothic Window Sepia. 38 X 22.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

Owl in a Gothic Window Sepia. 38 X 22.5 cm The Hermitage, Leningrad

From 1798 on Friedrich lived in Dresden, leaving the city only to explore its picturesque environs, and in summer months, for trips to the north or to mountainous South Germany. Mountains, like the sea, are a recurrent theme in his art: he painted a multitude of mountain landscapes evocative of his admiration for nature’s eternal magnificence. These were based on his first-hand impressions, captured in extremely accurate sketches. The efforts of German researchers have established the localities depicted — the Memories of the Riesengebirge grew out of drawings of the Elbe’s source and the mountain peaks Silberkamm, Ziegenriicken, Planur and Schneekoppe, and the Mountain Landscape shows Silberkamm, Kleine Sturmhau- be and Medelsenke. The drawings were done in different years and, for all the visual authenticity of the landscapes, they are in their own way fantastic, not material for a topographically accurate map of a specific locality. Friedrich argued: “When an artist wants to deceive us by literally imitating nature, as if taking over the functions of God the Creator, he is nothing but a dolt. But if he strives for noble truth in portraying inimitable nature, then he deserves respect?.
The artist began to paint mountain landscapes in the first years of the century, and his last — the Memories of the Riesengebirge — dates from 1835. The picture was put up at a lottery held by the Kunst- verein of Saxony and was won Piotr Durnovo, ultimately becoming the only Friedrich work not from a palace collection to end up in the Hermitage.
The Memories of the Riesengebirge was fated to be the artist’s last large-scale work. He was gravely ill and semi-paralyzed, and although he had lost neither his observant eye nor his fresh Romantic sense, he was only strong enough for small canvases, sepias and watercolours. This painting is thus important as a definite point of reference in the chronological classification of Friedrich’s legacy. The painter never signed his works, nor did he date them, and obviously his preparatory drawings, unlike those of other artists, do not help in the case. His pictorial manner was formed by 1810 and remained almost constant, so the only clue to ascribing his paintings to specific periods is their emotional and intellectual content.
The Memories of the Riesengebirge is imbued with a sense of unbounded loneliness, a presentiment of approaching death. Never before had Friedrich’s nature been so alienated and distant, even hostile to man: there is not even a place for a meditator here. The theme of death had always been important to Friedrich, but earlier it was personified through Romantic symbolism and compositional arrangement, and it was treated in the broad philosophical context, as the problem of life and death, the finite and the infinite. Here philosophical abstraction has been replaced by personal sensation.
The emotional state evident in the paintings Mountain Landscape and Morning in the Mountains is entirely different. Soft morning light muffles the sharp outlines of the mountain ridges, and in the figures, not immediately noticed, of the shepherds (Morning in the Mountains) and the ploughman (Mountain Landscape) sound notes of elegiac regret over the impossibility of merging wholly with nature. These paintings are among the few examples of Friedrich’s work in which human figures appear merely as staf- fage rather than as contemplators isolated from nature, yet the staffage is not used as an enlivening genre device. The people are set back from the foreground and personify the organic element of life, free both from Romantic reflectiveness and from Philistine straightforwardness, and hence viewed by the Romantics as part of nature. In their spirit, these paintings resemble works documented as dating from the years just before and after 1820 (e.g. On a Sailing Ship).
The Romantic rejection of the mundane side of life did not preclude the learning of an artist’s craft.