Caspar David Friedrich was the greatest artist of the Romantic period in Germany. He was a specialist of allegorical landscape painting which depicts figures in their silhouettes against a barren land, morning fog, or night skies. His characters are normally in contemplative mood as they wonder across the vast lands of the planet.
His painting, Wonderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), is an example of his symbolic work which tries to elicit an individual emotional response to then natural environment by means of contemplation. The painting depicts a figure of a man standing over a jagged rock formation where the fog is enveloping the whole of surrounding. The perspective is diminished against the panoramic landscape to let the audience’s eyes focus on the presence of the man and think of him as themselves to let the mind wonder through a different dimension.
Friedrich used his unfortunate circumstances in life as a source of inspiration to most of his paintings. The tragedies in his family allured him to be closer to God and introduced him to the idea that God manifests in nature. Therefore, his paintings normally depict the natural landscapes under different seasons, particularly winter. He ranked among the cream of the crop of his generation for his ability to thinking critically and excellent skill in painting metaphysical works.
Some of Friedrich’s most important works include The Tetschen Altar (1807), Chalk Cliffs on Rugen (1818), The Sea of Ice (1824), Winter Landscape with Church, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1835), and Landscape with Graves (1837).
Friedrich was born on September 5, 1774 in Greifswald, Baltic coast of Germany. He was raised by his soap-maker parents, Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich and Sophie Dorothea Bechly. It seemed that his family had enough sources of income to raise him as an educated individual, as some records show that he had a private tutor during his boyhood.
However, the young Friedrich had been exposed to a series of tragedies at the age of seven. His mother died in 1781 and his sister Elisabeth soon followed a year later. A little over a decade later, his second sister Maria died of typhus. Art historians say that Friedrich’s greatest heartbreak was by the death of his closest brother, Johann Christoffer in 1787 as he saw himself how his brother fell and got drown in the frozen lake.
These tragedies would later provide inspiration to his paintings as well as the outdoor sceneries of Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania.
In 1790, Friedrich entered the University of Greifswald. He was privately mentored by Johann Gottfried Quistorp, who would take his students to outdoor painting and drawing trips. This had introduced Friedrich to sketch from still objects and nature at a young age. Quistorp’s association with the theologian, Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten served instrumental in developing the painter’s early career. The theologian taught Friedrich that God manifests in nature and it is His way of revealing Himself to humans.
Few years later, Friedrich’s subject matter became undeniably metaphysical in nature. He would paint landscapes with symbolical meanings behind it. The human presence in the painting might be contemplating the works of God such as the moon, mountains, and skies as the character tries to seek his place in this world.
Quistorp had also introduced his talented student to Adam Elsheimer, a master. Elsheimer was known for his religious-themed works set in landscape background. Friedrich also got to study literature under Thomas Thorild. And after completing his studies in the university, he transferred to Academy of Copenhagen to study the arts, including casting classical sculptures.
While in Copenhagen, Friedrich took the opportunity to visit the Royal Picture Gallery and revisited the 17th century art collections there particularly the Dutch landscape art works. He met landscape painters Jens Juel and Christian August Lorentzen in the academy, both artists considered Sturm und Drang manner as the movement that influenced them the most.
Typical of the Romantic characteristics, the painting at the time depict various moods and aesthetics was very important. The usual inspiration for works that embody these characteristics is the legend of Edda, Norse mythology, Ossian poetry collections. So no wonder Friedrich developed an interest in Romantic representations of nature and the Creator.
In 1798, he moved to Dresden to settle there permanently. He began his experimentations with etching and engraving. He designed his own woodcut, too. In the span of six years, he was able to produce four unique woodcuts and 18 etchings, all of which were meant to be gifted to his friends. He then began developing a keen interest in using sepia and watercolor as media to his art.
He also executed oil painting in canvas in 1797, which yielded to the creation of Landscape with Temple in Ruins. He became too fond of landscape painting since then and for having been to journeys to different provinces in the Baltic Coast and Harz Mountains. Apparently, his works during his middle years were landscapes of areas in Northern Germany, depicting harbors, graveyards, forests, hills, and morning fogs.
In Dresden, he found inspiration through the natural environment of river Elbe and the city’s topography. Most of his art works at the time were executed in pencil as this was an effective media for drawing topographical features of an area and weather effects. At some point, he experimented with adding light and sun to make his work more dramatic.
In 1805, Friedrich won first place of Weimar competition which was organized by the esteemed intellectual Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Weimar was known for attracting mediocre talents, which somehow affected Goethe’s reputation negatively but this was about to change when Friedrich entered and won the competition for his sepia drawings. He submitted two works namely Fisher-Folk by the Sea and Procession at Dawn.
Having won the competition and receiving the praises from Goethe, Friedrich was able to jumpstart his professional career in Dresden nicely. He received his first major commission by the Countess of Thun in 1807, for whom he had to paint Tetschen Altar, an altarpiece to the Countess’ family chapel in Bohemia.
In 1810, he was elected to be a member of the prestigious Berlin Academy. He submitted the Prussian Crown Prince to the academy masters that got him in to the said institution. In 1816 the Dresden Academy welcomed him as its newest member for his Setting Sun painting. His membership to Dresden Academy provided him 150 thalers annually.
Caspar David Friedrich was married to a daughter of a local dyer Caroline Bommer. The couple got married in 1818 and he was already 44 years old at the time while his wife was 25. They bore three children with Emma being the first-born daughter in 1820. Some experts notice that Friedrich’s works during this significant period of his life somehow changed. He began introducing female figures in his work, his coloring became brighter and the level of austerity has decreased.
Overall, his marriage resulted to a positive development in his career and style.
Duke Nikolai Pavlovich and his spouse Alexandra Feodorovna paid a visit to his studio in 1820. The royal couple had bought some of Friedrich’s works and brought it with them to St. Petersburg. This was the beginning of a long-term professional relationship between the painter and the Grand Duke.
The Russian support didn’t stop with the Duke’s patronage as it continued with Zhukovsky, a poet and mentor. The two met in 1821 and became great friends since then that Zhukovsky would buy some of his art works. The poet would also recommend Friedrich to his circle of elite friends such as the royal family members.
Romantic painter, Philipp Otto Runge had also been fond of Friedrich’s works although they’ve known of each other by acquaintance only. He then developed great friendship with Georg Friedrich Kersting who executed his own portrait at some point. Friedrich made a lot of friends in his later years, including Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, a Norwegian artist. It was Dahl who took notice of the descriptive quality in the works of his friend. By descriptive, he meant that Friedrich dedicated a lot of time to closely study nature, which reflective in his landscapes.
In his advanced age, he focused on making sketches of mausoleums and tomb monuments. He became deeply interested in the afterlife that he even helped other artists designed funerary art decorations in the cemeteries at Dresden. However, some of these sketches were now lost due to a fire in 1931.
Friedrich’s career and reputation suffered a decline almost two decades before his death. Romanticism was quickly becoming out of fashion that other artists and the public began to view his works as melancholic and eccentric. Thus, he lost a lot of his clients.
He decided to live in privately away from his friends around 1820. He suffered from poverty but his friends were there for him to support his needs. It was also around this time when he suffered from episodes of depression. One routine that he would during his old age was walking during a particular time of the day and night through the fields and woods. It seemed that the painter never lost his appreciation of nature.
Come 1835, the old landscape artist experienced his first cardiac arrest that caused him to be slightly paralyzed but this has affected his productivity greatly. One of his last major works was the Seashore by Moonlight in 1836.
The Russian Grand Duke bought again some of his earlier works, which generated him enough money to go to Teplitz and recover there. He recovered fortunately, and this enabled him to paint portraits for some wealthy patrons. The size of his works reduced greatly though thus his family still had to endure poverty.
May 7, 1840 marked the death of the great Romantic painter. Friedrich was interred at Trinity Cemetery in Dresden.