Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil on canvas, 95 x 75cm, c.1817

The art of Caspar David Friedrich

In our brave new world of modern art, there’s a growing appetite for celebrating the mystery of the natural world


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On a gable wall in Hamburg’s grungy dockland district stands a newly painted mural of one of the most iconic images in Western art. In other cities you might expect to see murals of famous footballers. Here, you’re confronted by Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. It is recognisable the world over — the ultimate image of the Romantic era, the lonely genius at one with nature — but few people outside Germany know much about the man who painted it.

That looks set to change. 2024 is Caspar David Friedrich’s 250th birthday, and throughout this anniversary year there are events and exhibitions all over Germany, devoted to the country’s greatest landscape painter.

The first of these exhibitions is Art for a New Age at the Kunsthalle, in Hamburg. Most of his greatest hits are in the exhibition, but this is more than an assemblage of old favourites. This retrospective repositions Friedrich, not only as a man in tune with the spirit of his own times, but as someone who speaks to us today. In our brave new world of modern art, where nihilism has become the norm, there’s a growing appetite for artists like Friedrich, who celebrate the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

Caspar David Friedrich did much more than simply depict the German countryside. For countless Germans, then and now, his poignant, dreamlike landscapes encapsulate the soul of Germany — that complex mix of grandeur and melancholia which Wagner subsequently evoked in music. Yet, this elusive, enigmatic artist, who now seems so synonymous with Germany, lived and died before Germany became a unified nation state.

The Sea of Ice, oil on canvas,
97 x 127cm, 1823-24

He was born in 1774 in Greifswald. This seaport on the Baltic coast had been under Swedish rule since 1648 (and would remain so until 1815, when it became part of Prussia), but it was German-speaking, with a rich Germanic heritage — the legacy of its mediaeval heyday as a Hanseatic port. Its cathedral and its university gave it cultural and academic status. Its windswept seashore gave Friedrich his most memorable motifs.

Built on trade rather than titles, Hanseatic ports like Greifswald were international in character, more closely connected with ports in other countries than with their own provincial hinterlands. Caspar’s father manufactured soap and candles. The family occupied a large house on the cathedral square with a rudimentary factory in the basement where Caspar, the sixth of ten children, was born and raised.

The Friedrichs were fairly prosperous, but money offered scant protection against myriad hazards. Caspar’s mother and several siblings died during his childhood; when he was 13, whilst skating on a frozen pond, he fell through the ice and nearly drowned. His younger brother, Johann, came to his aid and saved him, only to drown himself whilst doing so. This awful accident (echoed in his masterpiece, The Sea of Ice) had a profound effect on Caspar’s character. Throughout his life he remained solitary and withdrawn.

Eager to become an artist from an early age, Friedrich studied drawing under a tutor at Greifswald university, and then went away to train at Copenhagen’s prestigious art academy. The course was technically rigorous — pupils studied geometry and perspective — but it was the dawn of the Romantic era, and in Denmark he also acquired a keen interest in Norse mythology. This was a dynamic combination. “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him,” he declared. Friedrich could do both, and that was what gave his painting such emotive power.

detail from The Cross in the Mountains, oil on canvas, 127 x 72cm, 1808

Friedrich graduated in 1798 and went to Dresden, to pursue a career as a landscape painter. Then as now, this was a precarious business (he had little interest in portrait painting, a far more reliable way to make a living), but he was talented and dedicated. In 1808, after ten years of hard graft, he achieved a succès de scandale with an altarpiece called The Cross in the Mountains. The painting was ostensibly Christian, but the tiny figure on the cross was dwarfed by the dark forest that surrounded it. In Friedrich’s world, nature was more potent than any man, even Christ himself.

By rights, such a revolutionary stance should have made Friedrich an artistic outcast, but remarkably, in 1810, he sold two large paintings to the Crown Prince of Prussia. To sell any picture to the Prussian royal family would have been a terrific coup, but what made this purchase so remarkable was that these two paintings were even more progressive than The Cross in the Mountains.

The Abbey amongst the Oak Trees depicted monks processing through a monastery, yet the monastery is a ruin, the monks are miniscule, and the surrounding oaks seem omnipotent. The underlying message is clear: religion and civilisation are ephemeral — only nature endures.

The Monk by the Sea, oil on canvas, 110 x 171.5cm, 1808-10

The accompanying painting, The Monk by the Sea, was even more avant-garde. The monk is inconsequential, overwhelmed by the stormy sea and the stormy sky above. “At last, a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape,” declared the French sculptor David d’Angers, after a visit to Friedrich’s studio. It seems incredible that these two pictures, still so radical today, were painted over 200 years ago during the Napoleonic Wars.

Friedrich spent the rest of his life in Dresden and painted many fine pictures there, but he made frequent visits to Greifswald. Although his Saxon landscapes are highly prized, it’s his Pomeranian seascapes which capture the essence of how it feels to be German — in much the same way that John Constable’s landscapes capture the essence of Englishness.

The two men were contemporaries, but the countries they painted were poles apart. Constable’s England is tamed and cultivated; Friedrich’s Germany is wild and mystical. Constable’s figures are industrious, Friedrich’s figures are lost in thought. They gaze at the horizon, searching for inspiration. They seem to be striving for something that’s forever out of reach.

Friedrich enjoyed considerable success in the 1820s, but in the 1830s his work fell out of fashion, eclipsed by the more matter-of-fact realism of the Düsseldorf school of landscape painting. His later pictures were just as powerful (his last major painting, the mesmeric Seashore in Moonlight, completed in 1836, is one of the highlights of the Kunsthalle exhibition) but the cognoscenti had lost interest. When he died in 1840, aged 65, his death was barely noticed.

Seashore in Moonlight, oil on canvas, 134 x 169cm, 1835-36

For the next 60 years or so, he was practically forgotten. It was only at the start of the 20th century that Germany rediscovered him. During the turbulent decades that followed, his adoption as Deutschland’s national landscape painter proved to be a mixed blessing.

Friedrich’s depictions of German landscapes made him a favourite of the Nazis. Hitler praised him in his notorious speech at the opening of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich, a new gallery built to showcase “Aryan” artists endorsed by the regime.

Friedrich was no antisemite, and after the war his work was swiftly rehabilitated. Yet as Germany, east and west, embraced the modernist artists whom the Nazis had persecuted, artists they’d endorsed, like Friedrich, were inevitably marginalised. During the Cold War, as the West and East Germans both sought to subsume their national identities within their respective blocs, any art that spoke of German nationalism was an uncomfortable reminder of the Third Reich’s horrors.

In this anniversary year, it feels as if that shadow has finally lifted. Friedrich’s two-hundredth birthday, in 1974, was marked in a divided Germany, with his Baltic homeland shut off behind the Iron Curtain. Today, that border is no more. After my visit to Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, I crossed the road to the Hauptbahnhof (central station) and boarded an express train to Greifswald, in the former East Germany. Three hours later I alighted in the land Friedrich painted, a land remarkably unchanged.

Unlike most German cities, Friedrich’s hometown came through the Second World War virtually unscathed. Although it ended up in the Soviet zone it was largely left alone by Communist town planners, spared the brutalist eyesores which blighted so many eastern German conurbations. The antique Altstadt (old town) looks much as it did in Friedrich’s day, a cluster of gingerbread houses around a cobbled market square. The townhouse where Friedrich spent his childhood is now a museum.

Greifswald’s Landesmuseum has a decent collection of Friedrich’s paintings, but the main appeal of coming here is seeing the sites he painted. Despite the upheavals of the last century, they are easily recognisable. On the edge of town is Eldena Abbey, the inspiration for The Abbey amongst the Oak Trees. A short walk from this ruined abbey, an intensely atmospheric site, is the sandy beach I feel sure must have inspired The Monk by the Sea.

I trudged along this desolate shoreline, tormented by the wind and rain. Coming here in winter, you imbibe the strange magic of Friedrich’s paintings — the almost tideless Baltic, flanked by reedbeds and stunted trees. The pale light feels otherworldly. Bustling Hamburg seems a long way away.

I finished my winterreise on Rügen, Germany’s largest island. This was Friedrich’s favourite refuge, where he spent some of his happiest times. The island is mostly flat, but in the north the terrain rises to steep chalk cliffs, culminating in the Königstuhl (King’s Throne), the peak which prompted one of Friedrich’s most famous paintings — another highlight of the Hamburg show.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 90 x 70cm, 1818

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen depicts three figures (one of whom is probably Friedrich) standing perilously close to the cliff edge, peering into the abyss. The white cliffs that frame the scene are realistic, but the blue sea beyond is impressionistic. Painted 200 years ago, it’s a picture that anticipates modern art.

Even in Friedrich’s day, the Königstuhl was a popular attraction. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, drawing a stream of sightseers. There’s a café and a gift shop, all the usual touristic detritus. If you’re looking for an unspoilt wilderness, you’ll be disappointed. Yet you don’t need to venture far into the surrounding forest to encounter the wonder of Friedrich’s art. “It is not the faithful representation of air, water, rocks and trees which is the task of the artist, but the reflection of his soul in these objects,” he observed. “The only true source of art is in our heart.”

Caspar David Friedrich: Art for a New Age is at the Kunsthalle, Hamburg, until 1 April 2024.

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