At Large  March 14, 2023  Josh Coyne

The Artist Who Discovered the Tragedy of Landscape

Wikimedia Commons

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea, 1817, oil on canvas

Caspar David Friedrich, like other Romantic painters, established landscape paintings as a dominant genre in Western art. Friedrich’s coming of age was during a time when materialistic society began to favor spirituality. The artist followed this shift in ideals through expressing the natural world as a divine creation, a separate entity from human civilization. As French sculptor David d’Angers said, he was a man who had discovered “the tragedy of landscape.”

Friedrich was born on September 5th, 1774, in Greifswald, on the Baltic coast of Germany. He was the sixth of ten children and raised in a strict Lutheran household by his father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich, an affluent candle maker and soap boiler. The melancholy nature of his work is often attributed to his early exposure to death as a child. His mother passed when Friedrich was only seven, two of his sisters succumbed to diseases in 1781 and 1782, and his older brother Johann Christoffer died falling through the ice on a frozen lake as he tried to save Casper David from a similar fate. 

Friedrich began his formal art studies in 1790 at the University of Greifswald, where he studied alongside Johann Gottfried Quistorp under the tutelage of Swedish professor Thomas Thorild. Thorild’s influence on Friedrich’s work was likely substantial, as Thorild taught Friedrich to distinguish between the spiritual “inner eye” and the less valuable “outer eye”, a recurring theme in many of his landscape portraits.

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Gerhard von Kügelgen portrait of Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1810–1820, oil on canvas

In 1794, Friedrich began his studies at the prestigious University of Copenhagen where he worked under Christian August Lorentzen and the landscape painter Jens Juel. These men were inspired by the Sturm und Drang movement of late 18th-century Germany, a literary movement that sought to dignify nature, feeling, and human individualism in rejection of the doctrine of Rationalism popularized during the Enlightenment. Friedrich was a talented student and was chiefly interested in the 17th-century Dutch landscape paintings that were present in Copenhagan’s Royal Picture Gallery.

After his studies in Copenhagen, Friedrich settled permanently in Dresden. Friedrich, encouraged by both his academic mentors as well as the collective growing disillusionment with the materialist society that defined his era, sought to depict nature as a divine creation that was separate from the impurity of human civilization. Landscapes as a result became his preferred subject. Friedrich was inspired by his trips to the Baltic coast, Bohemia, and the Riesen and Harz Mountains. His paintings depict woods, hills, harbors, morning mists, and other light effects based on a close observation of nature.

Fredrich completed his first major painting in 1808 at the age of thirty-four, an altarpiece for a family chapel in Tetschen, Bohemia. Cross on the Mountains, also known as the Tetschen Altar, was significant as it was the first depiction of a landscape in an altarpiece. Although it was relatively controversial among critics, this was Friedrich’s first painting to receive widespread publicity. After two of his painting were purchased by the Prussian Crown Prince, he was elected into the Berlin Academy in 1810. Six years later, he was elected into the Dresden Academy, reaching the peak of recognition he would receive during his life. 

Wikimedia Commons

Caspar David Friedrich, The Tetschen Altar (The Cross in the Mountains), 1807, oil on canvas

In January of 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer, a twenty-five-year-old woman, who was the daughter of a dyer from Dresden. The effects of his marriage on his artworks were subtle although noticeable, as his paintings became brighter in color and mood, and incorporated more human subjects. This perhaps was a result of the increasing importance he placed on human life, an appreciation that was no doubt inspired by his new family. In 1818 he painted two of his most recognizable works: The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog and Chalk Cliffs on Rugen. These two scenes both depict people appreciating the beauty of nature, inviting viewers to join them in contemplating the divine and mystical qualities of nature in their own lives.

During the final fifteen years of his life, Friedrich’s reputation as an artist gradually declined. As the values of Romanticism slowly fell out of style, Friedrich and his work became relics of an outdated and obsolete era. He gradually became more recluse and fell into poverty, and following a stroke in 1835, lost his former artistic prowess due to partial limb paralysis. He died in 1840 in abject poverty and his death was little noticed in the artistic community.

Friedrich was a major inspiration for a multitude of 20th-century artists, including Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Gotthard Graubne, and Anselm Kiefer. While he was relatively unknown during his life, his work became celebrated several decades after his death, as the symbolism of his pieces began to be appreciated as an exemplar of Romantic era paintings.

About the Author

Josh Coyne

Josh Coyne is a North Carolina native that has lived in Chapel Hill for most of his life. He is a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is planning on double majoring in History and English. Josh wrote for Art & Object as an intern for the Summer of 2021.

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