Christmas and Snow

Somebody once said that the only way to enjoy the sight of snow is when looking at a postcard or a painting.  I have spent a number of Christmas Days in hot climes such as Karachi and Melbourne and know that Christmas is not Christmas without snow.  So for this Christmas blog I want to look at some of the beautiful winter landscapes created by famous and not-so-famous artists to remind me of a snowy Christmas, many of which have featured in earlier blogs.

View of Bazincourt, Snow Effect Sunset by Camille Pissarro (1892)

Camille Pissarro depicted the small town of Bazincourt-sur-Epte at all times of the day, and in all seasons, in a number of his paintings.  In 1892 he completed his work entitled View of Bazincourt, Snow Effect, Sunset.  In this Impressionistic-style painting we can see how Pissarro has managed to infuse a warmth to the scene by his use of violet for the trees and the way the sun has illuminated the clouds.

Snow Scene at Argenteuil by Claude Monet (1875)

The great Claude Monet, known for his lily ponds at Givenchy, also painted a number of winter landscapes.  The first one I am looking at is his work entitled Snow Scene at Argenteuil.  Monet and his family moved to Argenteuil a small Parisian suburb twelve kilometres north-west of the heart of the French capital and was accessible from central Paris with a short train ride.  Monet painted many scenes in and around Argenteuil featuring the riverbanks of the Seine, the railway bridge which straddles the French river, which often featuring a steam train chugging across the structure.  The painting I have chosen was one of eighteen that Monet completed which depicted the snowy winter of 1874/5. It is a depiction of the Boulevard Saint-Denis, near Monet’s home. It looks towards its junction with the rue de la Voie des Bans, with the River Seine beyond.  The figures we see in the painting are plodding along the road and it could be that they are making their way to or from the nearby railway station which lies behind the artist.  The station would have been used by holiday makers and commuters on their way from Paris.  The snowy road surface has dark brown furrows made by passing carts and as we follow them we can see the town in the background.  This painting was one of the largest (71 x 91cms) snowscapes that Monet completed but does not have some of the finer details in Monet’s smaller winter paintings.

La Pie (The Magpie) by Claude Monet (1869)

My favourite winter painting by Monet was completed in 1869,  six years before the Argenteuil work.  He painted it during the winter of 1868–1869 whilst he and his girlfriend, Camille Doncieux were living near the commune of Étretat in Normandy in a house Monet’s patron, Louis Joachim Gaudibert, had arranged for them.  This is Monet’s largest (89 x 130cms) winter painting. The painting depicts a solitary magpie which has alighted on a gate which has been fitted between parts of a wattle fence. Sunlight falls upon freshly fallen snow producing blue shadows.   This “blue shadow” phenomenon later became associated with the Impressionist movement artists. Monet and those Impressionists exploited the use of coloured shadows to symbolise the actual, changing circumstances of light and shadow as witnessed in nature, and by so doing, they defied the academic convention of painting shadows black.   However all were not pleased with this new concept which led to its rejection by the Paris Salon of 1869. However present art historians today believe that The Magpie is one of Monet’s best snowscape paintings.  The painting was acquired by the Musée d’Orsay in 1984 and is considered one of the most popular paintings in their permanent collection.

Snow at Louveciennes by Alfred Sisley (1874)

It is believed that due to a series of severe winters in France in the 1870s it contributed to a sudden increase in the number of winter landscapes produced by Impressionists.  My next painting I am showcasing is one created by Alfred Sisley in 1874, entitled Snow at Louveciennes.  Before us we see a picturesque scene of stillness set in early winter’s morning in Louveciennes, a small village in the Île-de-France region in north-central France, located in the western suburbs of Paris, between Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye.  Sisley depicts the sky in white, crisp blue, and grey hues. His use of perspective guides the viewer along a winding road which vanishes into the background.  The buildings in the paintings are covered with snow and we see a lone woman holding an umbrella strolling along the pathway, which has trees on either side. The artist is willing us to take a walk with the woman as she heads towards the village.  Sisley was entranced by views of the countryside during the winter months.  In fact, unlike most of us who dreaded heavy snowfall Sisley was inspired by what he saw and was especially attracted by how the variations in light came into play in snow scenes.

Effect of Snow on Petit-Montrouge by Manet (1870)

The oil on canvas painting entitled Effect of Snow on Petit-Montrouge was painted by Edouard Manet and depicts a winter view of Petit-Montrouge, in the 14th Arondissment of Paris.  Manet completed the work in 1870 whilst he was serving in the National Guard during the 1870–71 Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War. There was no hint of the war, no heroic view of the battle or the bloody fighting, which was raging around the French capital, as often seen in the work of other artists’ paintings of the time.  This painting, although a snowy scene, is awash with shades of brown and black giving it a dark and foreboding ambience which could well be because the way Manet was feeling about the course of the ongoing war.  During this time Manet wrote to his wife:

“…My soldier’s knapsack serves…to hold everything necessary for painting. I shall soon start some sketches from life. They will be souvenirs that will one day have value…”

The painting depicts a view of the church of Saint-Pierre at Petit-Montrouge, and it is inscribed:

“…â mon ami H. Charlet 28 Xbre 1870. Charlet…”

 Charlet is thought to have been a comrade in the National Guard.  The dark image reflects Manet’s loss of hope regarding the impending military defeat and his deep loneliness, the deprivation and his bouts of depression he suffered during this time. It is one of the few landscapes in Manet’s oeuvre and is one of Manet’s first plein air paintings. Today it is in the collection of the National Museum Cardiff.

The Rooks have returned by Alexi Savrasov (1871)

Having looked at a painting by Monet featuring a black coloured bird against the white of the snow I had to give you one of my favourite works of art and this too features black birds and snow.  It is not quite a winter scene more “a coming of Spring motif”.  It is Alexi Savrasov’s painting entitled The Rooks have Returned, which I saw at the Tretyakov Gallery when I was in Moscow.  Savrasov was one of the most important, some would say, the most important of all the 19th century Russian landscape painters, and he was  deemed the creator of the “lyrical landscape style”. It is Savrasov’s most famous painting, and the painting is considered by many critics as being the high point in Savrasov’s artistic career.  The depiction witnesses the coming of spring as signalled by the return of the rooks.  The work is testament to Savrasov’s love for the rural Russian landscape, and he was very influenced by John Constable. The depiction we see before us is a simple, and depicts the somewhat inconsequential occurrence of birds returning home in spring to an extremely unpretentious landscape, but it was Savrasov’s way of communicating the change of seasons from Winter to Spring. Simple and yet beautiful.  The great Russian painter, the classical landscape painter, Isaac Levitan commented about its simplicity saying that although the painting was very simple, beneath its simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it.  The painting enhanced Savrasov’s reputation as a landscape painter and it contributed to the success of the first exhibition organized by the Peredvizhniki.

Queue to a Resrvoir by Vasily Perov (1865)

Another depiction of a harsh winter and its effect on the people is Vasily Perov’s work entitled Queue to a Reservoir depicting people in freezing conditions to get themselves some water. It is a reminder of what is happening even nowadays.

Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1811) Staatliches Museum, Schwerin.

If your taste in winter landscape paintings is not so much for aesthetic beauty but for depictions that are full of atmosphere then you should look no further than the winter scenes painted by the great German artist, Caspar David Friedrich.  His two Winter Landscape paintings of 1811 relate a poignant story.  One of the works is housed in the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin whilst the other is in the National Gallery, London. In the Schwerin picture, we observe a tiny figure, leaning on a crutch.  He gazes out on a deserted snow-covered landscape.  The sky is coloured grey/black adding to the ominous feel to the work.  The man meanders between dead or dying oak trees, and the stumps of felled trees.  It is a depiction of total barrenness and this bleakness adds to the feeling of hopelessness.  Life for him could not get any worse.

Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich (c.1811). National Gallery London.

However the National Gallery painting, a companion piece to the one in Schwerin, offers us a glimmer of hope for the man. This painting signifies the hope of resurrection through Christian faith. Look carefully at the snow in this work and you will see shoots of grass pushing through the snow and the evergreen trees and faint pink glow of approaching dawn affirm its message of renewal and rebirth. It is a fine example of Friedrich’s use of landscape painting as a vehicle for religious feeling and personal symbolism. As he stated, his aim was not ‘the faithful representation of air, water, rocks and trees … but the reflection of [the artist’s] soul and emotion in these objects.’

Man praying and abandoned crutches

The painting depicts a man, an invalid, who, in the Schwerin painting, we saw wandering helplessly in the snow, has now thrown away his crutches and lies against a large boulder as he prays in front of a shining crucifix protected by three fir trees, symbolising the Christian Trinity. In the background we see the silhouette of a German Gothic cathedral which is partially covered by a grey mist.  Unlike the hopelessness of the man’s situation in the first painting, Friedrich has instilled a sense of hope of a new life through Christian faith.

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruehel the Elder (1565)

No compilation of winter landscape paintings would be complete without the inclusion of such works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  In 1565 he completed his oil on wood painting entitled The Hunters in the Snow which is also referred to as The Return of the Hunters.  The work is part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.  It is one of his great genre painting scene with an aeriel viewpoint of a winter’s scene.  The painting was one of a twelve-work series depicting different times of the year and this one is set in the depths of winter during the months of December/January.  Before us we observe a wintry scene and in the left foreground, we see three hunters who are returning from an outing along with their dogs. They are heading down a snow-covered slope towards a small village.  Looking at the men trudging resignedly home with their dogs it appears not to have been a successful hunt with only one of the men carrying over his shoulder one dead fox, the fruit of their labour.  As if to taunt them, there are footprints of rabbits around them, which they failed to ensnare.   It is a cold overcast winters day with little or no wind as we can see by the lack of movement of the wood smoke.  Bruegel has used muted white and grey colours in this composition to give it an air of melancholy.  On the leafless trees we see crows perched on the bare branches. The setting is a flat-bottomed valley through which a river meanders. 

In the background we see an idealised landscape depicting jagged mountain summits which do not exist in Bruegel’s homeland but which would have been seen with him during his time in the Alps.   At the bottom right of the painting we see the large wheel of a watermill which has been frozen stiff.  Below on the frozen lake people are ice skating.  To the returning hunter’s left we can see an inn with villagers preparing a roaring fire in preparation of roasting a pig.  The sign on inn is hanging askew.  The image on the sign depicts a stag named Saint Hubertus, who is the patron saint of hunters. The words are in Dutch, Dit is Guden Hert, which means in English “This is the Golden Deer”.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1566)

Another winter painting by Bruegel the Elder is his 1566 work entitled The Census at Bethlehem, also known as The Numbering at Bethlehem.  It depicts the collecting of names of the villagers so as to enforce a tax collecting regime.  Bruegel would have painted this following the harsh winter of 1565.  In this work Bruegel depicts a scene which pre-dates the Nativity and the birth of Christ. The scene before us takes inspiration from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 1 to 5.

“…In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered in their own towns. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth to the city of David called Bethlehem … with Mary with whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child…”

Although the story behind the painting is set in the Holy Land, Bruegel Bruegel combines this biblical narrative with life during his own time.  He has set his work in a Flemish village in winter at sunset with the ruined castle in the right-hand side of the background being based on the towers and gates of Amsterdam. People are gathered at a building on the left registering their details.  We can just about make out the Habsburg double-headed eagle on a sign on the building.  Villagers are streaming towards the census point, two of whom are Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who is with child, riding on a donkey. People are mingling in the cold, and we see happy children playing with toys on the ice and having snowball fights. There is the strange sight of a spoked wheel at the centre of the painting and this has occasionally be deemed to symbolise the wheel of fortune. To the right, a man in a small hut is shown holding a clapper, a warning to keep away from leprosy. Leprosy was endemic in that part of Europe when the painting was created. There is a begging bowl in front of the hut. In the background, men drink at a makeshift bar, and in the distance we see a well-kept church and a crumbling castle.

Bruegel once again treats a biblical story, in this case, the Census of Quirinius, as a contemporary event. He wants to liken the harsh events of the Roman occupation with the severity of the Spanish administration, who at Bruegel’s time, were ruling the southern Netherlands.  It is also thought that Bruegel was condemning the bureaucracy he was having to fight on a daily basis.

Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (c.1590)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s son Pieter Bruegel the Younger and his studio made dozens of copies of his father’s painting after he died in 1569.  One, thought to be completed before 1600, was sold at auction for $10 million in 2013. One other copy, dated from 1610, is also at Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

Love of Winter by George Bellows (1914)

I will almost end this compilation of winter scenes by highlighting two works completed by the distinguished American artist, George Bellows.  George Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1882 and after passing through the various school years arrived at Ohio State University at the age of nineteen.  It was here that his sporting prowess came to the fore and at one time it was thought that he may take up baseball professionally.  During his time at the university, he funded himself by working as a commercial illustrator.  However, Bellows had one aim in life and that was to become an artist, so much so, that he quit the university just before he was due to graduate and moved to New York to study art.

He enrolled in the New York School of Art and became a student of Robert Henri.  It was through Henri that Bellows came into contact with a group of artists known as The Eight and later became part of  The Ashcan School.  The Eight was a group of artists whose fame derives from, and for what they will always be remembered for, their one and only joint exhibition in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York.  The exhibition was a sensation and it is now looked upon as one of the most important events in the development of twentieth-century American art.

It is said that Bellows wrote to a friend in January 1914:

“…There has been none of my favourite snow. I must always paint the snow at least once a year.”

Unknown to him these were prophetic words as on February 13th 1914 New York City was hit by a major blizzard and it was this occurrence which led to Bellows painting his famous 1914 work entitled Love of Winter.  The whole winter scene was intensified by Bellows with his use of bright reds, yellows, and greens and the feel of movement in the painting is achieved by his broad slashing brushstrokes.  The enthusiastic group of skaters and onlookers of differing ages, differing social classes echoes the diverse populations who appreciated  the public parks and the leisure activities on offer to them in early 20th-century New York City.

Blue Snow, The Battery by George Bellows (1910)

His other snow scene I wanted to show you is entitled Blue Snow, The Battery which he completed in 1910.  The setting for the painting is Battery Park which lies adjacent to the financial district of Manhattan.  There is a breathtaking beauty about this work of art.  His imaginative and powerful use of blue energizes the scene of the southern tip of Manhattan.  Bellows painted a number of scenes with New York City under snowfall and as with this work it is amazing how he has developed a strong sense of light and visual texture contrasting the white and blue of the snow and the dark grimy outline of the old buildings.  It is a beautiful strong composition which is normally housed at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Winter Landscape by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

The inclusion of a blue tint in the depiction of the snow gave Bellows’ winter scene a colder ambience. Snow is white but a tinge of blue adds to its portrayal but what about other colours for snow? Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Winter Landscape is one of the works in which the individualities of the artist, who was one of the founders of abstract art, are shown in the full extent. The motif of thin black trunks is often used by Kandinsky in his landscapes. Bright colouring with predominant pink, yellow, blue and black is based on immediate visual impressions: the artist seeks to convey various light effects in the snow illuminated by the setting sun. Kandinsky explained his choice of colours:

“…Colour provokes a psychic vibration. Colour hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body…”

Your thoughts ?

I hope you enjoy this over-long blog but it is holiday time and hopefully you have plenty of time to read it. I end by wishing you a Happy Hanukkah, A Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


Winter Landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich

When I visited the National Gallery in London last week I knew I only had an hour to spare so decided to try and sensibly limit what I wanted to see rather than rush around trying to see as much as I could in the allotted time and end up really seeing nothing.  I decided to visit the Impressionist paintings which were housed in rooms 43 to 46.  They were awash with works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir and the likes.  I spent some time in front of The Large Bathers by Cézanne as I knew I was going to write about the Philadelphia Museum of Art version of the painting which is very similar to the one in the National Gallery.  (See My Daily Art Display for March 13th).  The reason for mentioning all this is not that I am featuring another Impressionist work today but that having passed through these rooms I arrived at Room 41 which was simply entitled The Academy.

So why label this room as such?  The answer is that It goes back to the first half of the 19th century and the academic teachings of École des Beaux-Arts, which was the official art school in Paris. The training that young aspiring artists received at this establishment was very taxing and their tutors made them spend long periods drawing.  The students started by copying plaster cast statues and then later they would join the life classes. In some ways there art was regimented.  It had to conform to the rules of The Academy.  Their tutors only wanted to have them deliver what we now term academic art.   I had thought that the title of this room would mean that it would be full of works by French painters but it was not.  It was more to do with the style of paintings than the nationality of the artist and although there were a large number of works by famous French artists such as Corot, Delacroix, Géricault, and Jaques Louis-David there were some non-French contributors such as the Spanish painter, Francesco Hayez, the Danish painter Christen Købke and the German painter, Johann Philipp Eduard Gaertner.  However I came across a painting in this room, entitled Winter Landscape,  by one of my favourite artists, Caspar David Friedrich and it is this painting along with two of his other works, which are connected to this painting that I want to feature in My Daily Art Display blog today.   Caspar David Friedrich studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts at the end of the eighteenth century.  This Academy is the oldest and most renowned place of higher learning in Denmark.

Caspar Friedrich was one of the leading artists of the German Romantic movement.  He specialised in landscape painting but with a difference.   His aspiration as a landscape artist was not to be a topographical artist portraying true representations of what he saw but he wanted his paintings, as he once said, “to reflect the artist’s soul and emotions in the landscape”.  He endowed his landscape works with symbolism and the natural elements in his work often took on a religious connotations.

There is something about all Friedrich’s paintings which make them so evocative.  I find his works of art breathtaking and I stood before this painting and marvelled how such a painting could exude an overwhelming feeling of both wonderment and awe.  As we have seen with other artists, they would often paint a number of versions of the same subject.  In some cases the difference between the various versions would be very noticeable in others the differences would not be so obvious. Two of today’s painting fall into the latter category.  The two paintings, Winter Landscape and Winter Landscape with Church look almost the same, but not quite.  To confuse things slightly I am also going to look at another work of his, also entitled Winter Landscape, which is almost a prequel to the other two.  Sounds confusing?  Let us take a look at each of the works.

Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (Schwerin) 1811

The oil on canvas painting, above, entitled Winter Landscape, can be found in the Staatliche Museum in Schwerin and was painted by Friedrich in 1811.   This painting has an intense feeling of solemnity and pathos as we look out at a bleak winter scene with a snow covered ground stretching out as far as the eye can see.  This melancholic depiction before us, with its threatening dark grey sky features a tiny old man, bent over and leaning on his two wooden crutches. He is standing between two gnarled tree trunks and into the distance we can see the stumps of trees which have been cut down.  Some art historians would have us believe that we should interpret this as being symbolic of the end of life and see the painting as an allegory for the aged man coming to end of his life as the landscape and vegetation also have reached the end of their life cycle.   So looking at this work are we to believe there is no hope for this man?  Probably so, but then Friedrich decided to paint a companion piece.  In fact that same year, 1811, he painted two companion pieces which follow up the story of the little old man. These two works depicted a tale of the old man’s salvation.

Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (National Gallery, London) 1811

One of the companion paintings was again entitled Winter Landscape and is housed in Room 41 of the National Gallery, London.  This work was discovered in a private collection in 1982, and was acquired by the National Gallery five years later.   The second one, thought to be a copy of the London painting, is entitled Winter Landscape with Church, and can be found in the Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte (Museum of Art and Cultural History) in Dortmund.   In both of these paintings we see that Friedrich has introduced, for the first time in his art work, a Gothic church, which can just be seen emerging out of the misty backdrop with the somewhat red-streaked threatening winter sky overhead.   In the mid-ground we see a man leaning back against a boulder and is probably the same man we saw leaning on his crutches in the previous work.  He had arrived at the end of his journey and we see him gazing up, in prayer, at the crucifix which is positioned in front of a cluster of young fir trees. The figure of Christ on the cross looks down upon him.  In the foreground we see his crutches lying in the snow, which we presume he has discarded.  The abandoned crutches and the man looking up devotedly at the crucifix are interpreted as the man’s blind faith in his Christian beliefs and his feeling of security he has derived from those dearly held values.

In the first painting we looked at there is little to see but dead trees and stumps of once large ones.  We felt for the crippled man as he stood bent over his crutches in that wintry landscape and in a way we grieved for his unwanted solitude and wretchedness.  However in this scene before us now we see him in prayer and for him, we begin to realise he has reached the place he wants to be.   The mood of the painting is so different from the previous one.  The snow is the same. We still almost feel the coldness of the scene but the atmosphere has changed.  The once hopelessness has been replaced with a degree of hope.  The figure of Christ on the cross is symbolic of the hope that his resurrection would bring.  No longer does the man feel the necessity of wooden sticks to act as crutches.  The only support he wants is that given to him by his belief in Christ.

Looming on the horizon we see the facade of the spires of the grand Gothic church which reach toward the heavens, the silhouette of which has a marked similarity to that of the fir trees.  These trees along with the rocks we see appearing from beneath the snow in some ways symbolise faith and the large Gothic church, which appears to be rising from the ground, is symbolic of our belief that there is life after death.

Friedrich used few colours in these two paintings as he was more interested in the graduating tones of the few colours he used.  On a close examination of the actual paintings we are able to see that the misty but iridescent background has been achieved by stippling.  Stippling, in this case, is the creation of shading by using small dots.  The dots are made of a pigment of a single colour, and for this work the artist has used, the blue pigment, smalt, and has applied it with the point of a brush.

Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich (Dortmund) 1811

The London version of the painting is different to the version in Dortmund in as much as Friedrich has shown small blades of grass pushing up through the melting snow.  This symbolises hope and rebirth.   Also in the London version of the painting Friedrich has added an arched gateway in front of the church.

In November 1811 Friedrich sent these three works along with six others to an exhibition in Weimar.  This was the largest group of works shown by Friedrich so far.  The works were admired by a number of critics and poets, writers and famous figures like Goethe and Ludwig Tieck but they had their detractors who were opposed to the way Friedrich treated religious subjects and landscapes.

Mother and Child by the Sea by Johan Christian Dahl

Mother and Child by the Sea by Johan Christian Dahl (1840)

You would be forgiven for thinking today’s painting is by Caspar David Friedrich as it has all the hallmarks of similar paintings by the German Romantic painter.  My Daily Art Display today is in fact a painting by Johan Christian Dahl, who was the leading Norwegian landscape painter of his time.  The work is entitled Mother and Child by the Sea which he completed in 1840.

Dahl was born in Bergen Norway in 1788, son of a fisherman.  He studied art at school and thanks to a group of wealthy Bergen citizens who sponsored him and gave him funds, he was able to travel to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, where, at the age of twenty-three, he enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Seven years later, in 1818, Dahl left Copenhagen for a European tour of the major art centres in Germany and Italy.  He never forgot his homeland and made many journeys back to Norway where he made many sketches of the country’s rugged landscape.  In 1824 he became professor at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.  Whilst living in Dresden he became part of a celebrated artistic circle which included Casper David Friedrich and with these fellow artists shaped the era of German Romantic painting which began in the second half of the 18th century.  Friedrich and Dahl when they first met immediately hit it off and they became great friends.  Friedrich helped Dahl find lodgings and buy canvas and paint.  When Dahl moved into the house where Friedrich lived, they became even closer friends. They were godfathers to each other’s children, they sent paintings together to the various exhibitions, and when one had visitors, these were taken to see the works of the other. The two friends were regarded as the typical pair of complementary artists, Friedrich was the idealist painter and Dahl the naturalist painter, but both truly committed to Romanticism. They were considered a pair to such an extent that they were always mentioned together in the exhibition reviews and people tended to order companion pieces from them.  They had differing artistic techniques.   Dahl would start his subject directly on to canvas, composed from the various drawings and studies scattered around him, at great speed and with his studio full of visitors. Friedrich began his painting only after days of meditation when the entire scene stood clearly before his inner eye. He then worked in successive thin glazes, in order to have the whole composition visible at every stage in the process. Friedrich preferred an empty studio where nothing distracted his contemplation, and when he was painting the sky in his landscapes, nobody dared to speak to him.

Johan Dahl had quite a sad personal life.  He first married in 1820 and they had four children but sadly his wife, Emilie, died giving birth to their son, Siegwald in 1827.  In 1829 his son Alfred and daughter Marie died of scarlet fever.  He remarried in January 1830 to one of his art students, Amalie von Basserwitz, but she too died in childbirth that December.  This left Dahl, with the help of his housekeeper, to bring up his two children from his first marriage, Siegwald and Caroline.   Dahl, himself, died in Dresden in 1857, aged 69.  Over seventy years later his remains where brought back to his Norwegian homeland and buried in the cemetery of St Jacob’s church in Bergen.

The painting today was Dahl’s second version of the scene and was completed the same year as his great friend Casper David Friedrich died and in some way may have been Dahl’s tribute to the German Romantic artist   It depicts a woman with her child standing on a rocky coastal landscape pointing to a boat out at sea.  The scene is illuminated by moonlight.  Dahl, like many artists during the Romantic period, painted a number of pictures with moonlight over water and of this setting he once wrote:

“…The special thing I have succeeded in doing in this piece is the faint light cast by the moon over all the scenery, a peace that is spread all over the area, which makes it solemn and beautiful. The light in the clouds, the moon, the reflections in the water, in short a certain dimness that predominates it, if I dare say it, which must both be and not be, and shows that it is night…”

The mother and child await the arrival of the boat and the homecoming of the child’s father, one of the two figures we can just make out on the deck of the craft, which moves towards them across the glassy calm sea.  It is a tranquil night.  The moon peeks through an opening of the clouds, lighting up a patch of the otherwise dark sea causing a pearlescent shimmer over the water.  There is an air of optimism about this painting as the moon lights up the scene and we see the excitement of the child at his father’s safe return.  There is a magical feel to this work of art.

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.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

My Daily Art Display painting today is a mesmerising scene of a young man, believed to be a portrait of the artist himself,  with his back to us perched on a rocky outcrop gazing out reverentially over a landscape which is almost hidden by thick swirls of fog and clouds.  He is bedecked in a green frock-coat, leaning slightly on his walking stick, his curly blonde hair caught by the wind.  We, the viewer, look with the eyes of this young man and can just make out, through the thick pervading grey fog, a middle ground with its small clumps of trees which stand atop a rocky escarpment.  Further into the background one can see the tall greyish-blue toned mountains, lightly shrouded by the clouds, above which we are able to observe the sky with its slight glowing hue indicating that we  are witnessing either the start or end of the day.

Casper David Friedrich, the German Romantic artist, painted Wanderer above the Sea of Fog in 1818 and it can be found in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg.  It is one of the great Romantic landscape paintings of its time.  The setting for his painting is a fusion of various mountains in the Saxony and Bohemia region.  The outcrop of rocks on which the man stands is on the Kaiserkrone.  The painting draws attention to the smallness and insignificance of an individual in comparison to the untamed and possibly hostile natural setting.  Many of Friedrich’s paintings let people share his captivation with encountering nature in solitude whether it be from a rocky outcrop as in today’s painting or the frozen arctic as depicted in his painting The Arctic Sea.  He was a Romantic artists and their belief was that any artist who wanted to explore his own emotions, had necessarily to stand outside of the throng of money-making, political gimmickry, and urban noise in order to assert and maintain their positions.

Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, Germany in 1774.   At the age of twenty, he began his studies at the Academy in Copenhagen.  In 1798 he moved and settled down in Dresden but travelled extensively throughout Germany.  His landscapes, like that of his painting today, were based entirely of those of northern Germany and show in detail the breathtaking magnificence of the hills, harbours and weather conditions of that area which Friedich had observed.  Many of his scenes are devoid of people and concentrate on menacing ravines, intimidating cliffs and terrifying seas of ice.  One can see that in his landscape paintings, Friedrich gave more emphasis to threatening landscapes rather than the benign beautiful ones often painted by other artists.

David d’Angers, the French sculptor and contemporary of Friedrich said of Caspar David Friedrich, “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.”