The Stages of Life by Caspar David Friedrich

The Stages of Life by Caspar David Friedrich (1835)

I read the other day that life expectancy for men in the UK is somewhere between 75 and 80 years of age which is some ten years higher than it was in the 1970’s and of course what were once killer diseases are now more often or not, treatable.  So why worry about dying if you are still young?

Well of course, as far as longevity is concerned, the life expectancy back in the nineteenth century was much less, due to such diseases as cholera and typhus and  probably for a man living in Europe to reach the age of 45 in the nineteenth century was somewhat of an achievement.  All this leads me nicely on to my featured artist of the day, the German painter Casper David Friedrich, who was continually concerned with, and depressed by, the thought of his own mortality.  To be fair to him, he probably had good reason to be concerned and depressed by death for Friedrich had early acquaintances with death: his mother, Sophie Dorothea Bechly, died in 1781 when Caspar David was just seven.   At the age of thirteen, Caspar David was present when his brother, Johann Christoffer, fell through the ice of a frozen lake and drowned.    It was even reported that Johann Christoffer died while trying to rescue Caspar David, who was also in danger on the ice. His sister Elisabeth died in 1782, while another sister, Maria, died of typhus in 1791.

Friedrich’s contemporaries said that the melancholy in his art could be attributed to these tragic childhood events.  However I am not so sure that he was a manic depressive as there are many reports that stated he at times had a great sense of humour.   This was borne out by the famous German doctor, natural scientist and writer Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert, who knew the artist and in his autobiography, wrote of Friedrich:

“…..He was indeed a strange mixture of temperament, his moods ranging from the gravest seriousness to the gayest humour … But anyone who knew only this side of Friedrich’s personality, namely his deep melancholic seriousness, only knew half the man. I have met few people who have such a gift for telling jokes and such a sense of fun as he did, providing that he was in the company of people he liked…..”

So these mood swings of Friedrich could have been more symptomatic of a bi-polar disorder.

The painting featured today in My Daily Art Display is an allegorical painting by this German Romantic landscape painter Caspar Friedrich David, one of the greatest of all the landscape painters.  He completed this work of art five years before his death in 1840 aged 66.  So despite his concerns about his own mortality, he lived much longer than the then life expectancy of a German man.

The work of art is entitled The Stages of Life.  Art historians do not believe that this would have been the title that Friedrich gave to his painting as the artist believed that titles of paintings should not be blatantly descriptive as he wanted his paintings to speak for themselves and he did not want viewers to be swayed by descriptive titles.  It is quite possible that this title was added much later, after Friedrich’s death, and when the public’s interest in his work returned in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

So what do we have before us in Friedrich’s allegorical painting about mortality and the transient nature of life?  The setting for the painting is dusk on the peninsular headland at Utkiek, overlooking the entrance to the northeastern German Hanseatic seaport of Griefswald,  which is bathed by the light from the gold and lavender evening sky.  Griefswald was the birthplace of Caspar David.  In the foreground we see an elderly man wearing a long brown coat and black hat standing with his back to us looking out to sea.  He walks with the aid of a stick towards a group of people.    In front of him is a younger man with a top hat.  He has turned towards the elderly man beckoning him on and pointing something out to him.  Seated on the ground at the feet of the young man is a woman and between the young couple and the sea we can see two children.  These in fact were family members of Caspar David.  The elderly man is the artist himself.  The young man with the top hat was Caspar David’s nephew Johann Heinrich and the young woman, his daughter Emma.

The Swedish Pennant held aloft

The two children holding the Swedish pennant are his son Gustav Adolf, who the artist named after the Swedish king, King  Gustav Adolf IV, and his daughter Agnes Adelheid.  The Swedish flag was probably added by the artist as he believed himself to be half-Swedish as from 1630 Griefswald was part of Swedish Pomerania and under Swedish control, before it was taken by Prussia in 1815 and formed part of the Prussian Province of Pomerania.  This of course throws up the question as to the date of the painting which is given as 1835, some twenty years after control of this area changed from being Swedish to coming under Prussian jurisdiction.  So does the Swedish pennant held by the children mean that the town was still under Swedish control and thus the painting is pre-1815 or is it just a sentimental addition by the artist to those glorious days under Swedish control?

Art historians believe that this group of people represents the various stages of life.  The artist representing old age, the gentleman with the top hat representing maturity, the young woman seated on the ground representing youth and finally the children representing childhood.  Out at sea, and corresponding to the number of people depicted, we can see five sailing ships of various sizes and designs and differing distances from the shoreline.  The five ships, and their distance from shore, in a way symbolises the transience of life in the way that they are at different distances from the harbour and the end of their voyages symbolising man’s journey through life and his ultimate destination, death.   The largest of these sailing ships which we look at, head-on, has a mast and crosstree which form the shape of a cross which some believe symbolizes Friedrich’s deep religious faith.  However, to me, I must doubt that symbolism as it just appears to me as a simple sailing ship design.  There are many interpretations of the what the ships and people represent but I like the one given by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner in their book Caspar David Friedrich and the Language of Landscape in which they postulate that the two ships in the distance represent the mother and father sailing off into the distance to discover life and by so doing, gaining experience and wisdom through parenthood.   The largest ship close to shore, on the other hand,  represents the old man, a person who has built up experience over time and who has lived life to the full and who now is finally putting into the harbour to end life.

Whether we agree with or argue against the  interpretaion and symbolism of the painting I am sure we all agree that it is a wonderful work of art.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

One thought on “The Stages of Life by Caspar David Friedrich”


    Intersting to compare it with the paintings of Hans Baldung Grien ( 1 half of the 16 century Germany )

    His 7 stages of Women and his 3 stages of men and his 3 stages of women and death.
    Of course a complete different culture time etc etc makes it even more interesting.
    And life expectancy was perhaps 40 in general or perhaps less a lot of women died by giving birth to a child second child etc

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