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.”