Caspar David Friedrich Portrait

Caspar David Friedrich Biography


German Romantic Painter

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 7, his sister succumbed to typhus fever and his brother was drowned in a frozen lake, allegedly while trying to save Caspar David, under whose feet the ice cracked. In 1790 he began taking art classes from Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald and literature and aesthetics lessons from Swedish professor Thomas Thorbild, providing a very neat basis to Friedrich's philosophy through the distinction between the body eye and the spiritual eye.

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, which is said to require particular skills that gained him the attention of critics. It is unclear when he finally took up oil painting, but it was surely after the age of 30. Landscape is always his preferred motive. Mostly based on those of northern Germany, they depict woods, hills, harbors, morning mists, and other light effects based on a close observation of nature.

In 1808 he exhibited one of his most controversial paintings, The Cross in the Mountains (Gemaldegalerie, Dresden), in which - for the first time in Christian art - an altarpiece was conceived in terms of a pure landscape. The cross, viewed obliquely from behind, is an insignificant element in the composition. More important are the dominant rays of the evening sun, which the artist said depicted the setting of the old, pre-Christian world. The mountain symbolizes an immovable faith, while the fir trees are an allegory of hope. Friedrich painted several other important compositions in which crosses dominate a landscape.

The cross in the mountains aroused considerable controversy around Friedrich, who was already on his way to become a celebrity by the time. He was acquainted with Philipp Otto Runge, another notable German painter of the Romantic period, and deserved the admiration of 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. Besides of Christianty, German folklore became a more and more prominent topic, thus making Friedrich stand out for his patriotism as well during the French occupation of Pomerania. His marriage with Caroline Bommer in 1818 also marks the startpoint for a more frequent appearance of feminine characters in his paintings (Cretacic rocks in Rugen, painted during his honeymoon, is a good testimony of this new motive and one of Friedrich most famous works).
The sea of ice, 1824 (mistakenly known as "The wreck of the Hope" which was destroyed in 20th century).

With dawns and dusks constituting and important part of his landscapes, Friedrich's dusk years are characterized by a growing pessimism, also reflected in his work, which becomes darker, but at the same time monumental and somehow appalling. The sea of ice perhaps summarizes the ideas and aims reached by Friedrich at this point, though in such a radical way that the painting not well received. Between 1830-1835 he became more and more introverted and he notably dismissed the opinions of public and critics, considering he was only painting for his family and friends, although this is, again, one of his finest periods. In 1835, a stroke caused him limb paralysis. He was unable to paint again until he died in 1840.

After the development of sepia drawings and watercolors (mainly naturalistic and topographical), Friedrich took up oil painting after the age of thirty. His paintings were modeled on his sketches and studies of scenic spots, like the cliffs on Rugen, the surroundings of Dresden or Elbe and later composed in symbolic, often symmetrically balanced, compositions. His first mature style painting is the Tetschen Altar (1807) in which the crucified Christ is seen in profile in the top of a mountain, alone, surrounded by nature. In his time this work was not unanimously accepted for the principal role of landscape in a religious subject, however, this was his first appraised painting.

His famous morbidly romantic painting "The 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, much to the benefit of German and world architecture.

Friedrich's masterpieces were almost forgotten by the general public in the second half of 19th century and only at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century he was rediscovered by Symbolist painters for his visionary and allegorical landscapes. For that same reason Max Ernst and other surrealists saw him as a precursor of their movement.

Friedrich also sketched monuments (a memorial) and sculptures for mausoleums, which reflects his obsession with death and afterlife, and some funereal art in Dresden's cemeteries are his. Some of his masterpieces were destroyed due to a fire in Munich's Glass Palace (1931) and in Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

Philosophy and motives
The key element to understand Friedrich's ideas and the relevance of his work is the link between landscape and religion. Most of his best-known paintings are expressions of a religious mysticism. His landscapes seek not just 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 the overwhelming nature.

Colossal skies, storms, mist, ruins, scattered tracks of life (ancient altars, wrecked ships) and crosses bearing witness to the presence of God are usual elements in Friedrich's landscapes.

Even some of his apparently nonsymbolic paintings contain inner meanings, either religious or political, clues to which are provided either by the artist'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 the painter also intended the composition to represent both the church shaken by the Reformation and the transience of earthly things.

"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." Caspar David Friedrich.
"A mountain of ice and the debris of a ship that has been crushed by it. It is a great tragedy, not a single survivor." David d'Angers, 19th century French sculptor about The Sea of Ice. It will only be seen through dangerous images of people and society.

As well as other romantic painters like J. M. W. Turner or John Constable he made landscape painting a major genre in western art. Friedrich's style influenced the painting of the aforementioned Dahl, but the successors of his painting style did not achieve his mastery and depth. Arnold Bocklin was strongly influenced by his work and perhaps also the painters of the American Hudson River School, the Rocky Mountain School, and the New England Luminists. It sucks society hard out of the continuous cycle of vibrating illuminations , for example as seen in Frankenstien.