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Caspar David Friedrich-19th-century German Romantic landscape painter

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Caspar David Friedrich (5 September 1774 - 7 May 1840) was a 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter, generally considered the most important German artist of his generation. He is best known for his mid-period allegorical landscapes which typically feature contemplative figures silhouetted against night skies, morning mists, barren trees or Gothic or megalithic ruins. His primary interest as an artist was the contemplation of nature, and his often symbolic and anti-classical work seeks to convey a subjective, emotional response to the natural world. Friedrich's paintings characteristically set a human presence in diminished perspective amid expansive landscapes, reducing the figures to a scale that, according to the art historian Christopher John Murray, directs "the viewer's gaze towards their metaphysical dimension".
Friedrich was born in the Pomeranian town of Greifswald at the Baltic Sea, where he began his studies in art as a young man. He studied in Copenhagen until 1798, before settling in Dresden. He came of age during a period when, across Europe, a growing disillusionment with materialistic society was giving rise to a new appreciation of spirituality. This shift in ideals was often expressed through a reevaluation of the natural world, as artists such as Friedrich, J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and John Constable (1776–1837) sought to depict nature as a "divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization".
Friedrich's work brought him renown early in his career, and contemporaries such as the French sculptor David d'Angers (1788–1856) spoke of him as a man who had discovered "the tragedy of landscape".Nevertheless, his work fell from favour during his later years, and he died in obscurity, and in the words of the art historian Philip B. Miller, "half mad".As Germany moved towards modernisation in the late 19th century, a new sense of urgency characterised its art, and Friedrich's contemplative depictions of stillness came to be seen as the products of a bygone age. The early 20th century brought a renewed appreciation of his work, beginning in 1906 with an exhibition of thirty-two of his paintings and sculptures in Berlin. By the 1920s his paintings had been discovered by the Expressionists, and in the 1930s and early 1940s Surrealists and Existentialists frequently drew ideas from his work. The rise of Nazism in the early 1930s again saw a resurgence in Friedrich's popularity, but this was followed by a sharp decline as his paintings were, by association with the Nazi movement, interpreted as having a nationalistic aspect.It was not until the late 1970s that Friedrich regained his reputation as an icon of the German Romantic movement and a painter of international importance.
Life
Early years and family
Caspar David Friedrich was born on 5 September 1774, in Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania, on the Baltic coast of Germany.The sixth of ten children, he was brought up in the strict Lutheran creed of his father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich, a candle-maker and soap boiler.Records of the family's financial circumstances are contradictory; while some sources indicate the children were privately tutored, others record that they were raised in relative poverty.Caspar David was familiar with death from an early age. His mother, Sophie Dorothea Bechly, died in 1781 when he was just seven.A year later, his sister Elisabeth died,while a second sister, Maria, succumbed to typhus in 1791.Arguably the greatest tragedy of his childhood happened in 1787 when his brother Johann Christoffer died: at the age of thirteen, Caspar David witnessed his younger brother fall through the ice of a frozen lake, and drown.Some accounts suggest that Johann Christoffer perished while trying to rescue Caspar David, who was also in danger on the ice.
The chalk drawing Self-portrait, 1800, which portrays the artist at 26, was completed while he was studying at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen
Friedrich began his formal study of art in 1790 as a private student of artist Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald in his home city, at which the art department is now named Caspar-David-Friedrich-Institu in his honour. Quistorp took his students on outdoor drawing excursions; as a result, Friedrich was encouraged to sketch from life at an early age.Through Quistorp, Friedrich met and was subsequently influenced by the theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten, who taught that nature was a revelation of God. Quistorp introduced Friedrich to the work of the German 17th-century artist Adam Elsheimer, whose works often included religious subjects dominated by landscape, and nocturnal subjects.During this period he also studied literature and aesthetics with Swedish professor Thomas Thorild. Four years later Friedrich entered the prestigious Academy of Copenhagen, where he began his education by making copies of casts from antique sculptures before proceeding to drawing from life. Living in Copenhagen afforded the young painter access to the Royal Picture Gallery's collection of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. At the Academy he studied under teachers such as Christian August Lorentzen and the landscape painter Jens Juel. These artists were inspired by the Sturm und Drang movement and represented a midpoint between the dramatic intensity and expressive manner of the budding Romantic aesthetic and the waning neo-classical ideal. Mood was paramount, and influence was drawn from such sources as the Icelandic legend of Edda, the poems of Ossian and Norse mythology.
Friedrich settled permanently in Dresden in 1798. During this early period, he experimented in printmaking with etchings and designs for woodcuts which his furniture-maker brother cut. By 1804 he had produced 18 etchings and four woodcuts; they were apparently made in small numbers and only distributed to friends.Despite these forays into other media, he gravitated toward working primarily with ink, watercolour and sepias. With the exception of a few early pieces, such as Landscape with Temple in Ruins (1797), he did not work extensively with oils until his reputation was more established.Landscapes were his preferred subject, inspired by frequent trips, beginning in 1801, to the Baltic coast, Bohemia, the Krkonoše and the Harz Mountains.Mostly based on the landscapes of northern Germany, his paintings depict woods, hills, harbors, morning mists and other light effects based on a close observation of nature. These works were modeled on sketches and studies of scenic spots, such as the cliffs on Rügen, the surroundings of Dresden and the river Elbe. He executed his studies almost exclusively in pencil, even providing topographical information, yet the subtle atmospheric effects characteristic of Friedrich's mid-period paintings were rendered from memory.These effects took their strength from the depiction of light, and of the illumination of sun and moon on clouds and water: optical phenomena peculiar to the Baltic coast that had never before been painted with such an emphasis.
Move to Dresden
The Tetschen Altar, or The Cross in the Mountains (1807). 115 × 110.5 cm. Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden. Friedrich's first major work, the piece breaks with the traditions of representing the crucifixion in altarpieces by depicting the scene as a landscape.
Friedrich established his reputation as an artist when he won a prize in 1805 at the Weimar competition organised by the writer, poet, and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. At the time, the Weimar competition tended to draw mediocre and now long-forgotten artists presenting derivative mixtures of neo-classical and pseudo-Greek styles. The poor quality of the entries began to prove damaging to Goethe's reputation, so when Friedrich entered two sepia drawings—Procession at Dawn and Fisher-Folk by the Sea—the poet responded enthusiastically and wrote, "We must praise the artist's resourcefulness in this picture fairly. The drawing is well done, the procession is ingenious and appropriate... his treatment combines a great deal of firmness, diligence and neatness... the ingenious watercolour... is also worthy of praise."
Friedrich completed the first of his major paintings in 1807, at the age of 34. The Cross in the Mountains, today known as the Tetschen Altar (Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden), is an altarpiece panel commissioned by the Countess of Thun for her family's chapel in Tetschen, Bohemia. It was to be one of the few commissions the artist received.The altar panel depicts a Gipfelkreuz, or a gilded cross, in profile at the top of a mountain, alone, and surrounded by German and Austrian pine trees.The cross reaches the highest point in the pictorial plane but is presented from an oblique and a distant viewpoint. Nature dominates the scene and for the first time in Christian art, an altarpiece showcases a landscape. According to the art historian Linda Siegel, the design of the altarpiece is the "logical climax of many earlier drawings of his which depicted a cross in nature's world."
The work was first exhibited on Christmas Day, 1808.Although it was generally coldly received, it was nevertheless Friedrich's first painting to receive wide publicity. The artist's friends publicly defended the work, while art critic Basilius von Ramdohr published a lengthy article rejecting Friedrich's use of landscape in such a context; he wrote that it would be "a veritable presumption, if landscape painting were to sneak into the church and creep onto the altar". Ramdohr fundamentally challenged the concept that pure landscape painting could convey explicit meaning.Friedrich responded with a programme describing his intentions. In his 1809 commentary on the painting, he compared the rays of the evening sun to the light of the Holy Father.The sinking of the sun suggests that the era when God revealed himself directly to man has passed. This statement marked the only time Friedrich recorded a detailed interpretation of his own work.
Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains by Caspar David Friedrich, between 1822 and 1823
Friedrich was elected a member of the Berlin Academy in 1810 following the purchase of two of his paintings by the Prussian Crown art. Yet in 1816, he sought to distance himself from Prussian authority, and that June applied for Saxon artship. The move was unexpected by his friends, as the Saxon government of the time was pro-French, while Friedrich's paintings to date were seen as generally artic and distinctly anti-French. Nevertheless, with the aid of his Dresden-based friend Graf Vitzthum von Eckstädt, Friedrich attained not only artship, but in 1818, a place in the Saxon Academy as a member with a yearly dividend of 150 thalers.Although he hoped to receive a full Professorship, it was never awarded him as, according to the German Library of Information, "it was felt that his painting was too personal, his point of view too individual to serve as a fruitful example to students."Politics too may have played a role in the stalling of his career: Friedrich's decidedly Germanic choice of subject and costuming frequently clashed with the prevailing pro-French attitudes of the time.
Marriage
Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818). 90.5 × 71 cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Friedrich married Christiane Caroline Bommer in 1818, and on their honeymoon they visited relatives in Neubrandenburg and Greifswald. This painting celebrates the couple's union.
On 21 January 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a dyer from Dresden.The couple had three children, with their first, Emma, arriving in 1820. Physiologist and painter Carl Gustav Carus notes in his biographical essays that marriage did not impact significantly on either Friedrich's life or personality, yet his canvasses from this period, including Chalk Cliffs on Rügen—painted after his honeymoon—display a new sense of levity, while his palette is brighter and less austere.Human figures appear with increasing frequency in the paintings of this period, which Siegel interprets as a reflection that "the importance of human life, particularly his family, now occupies his thoughts more and more, and his friends, his wife, and his townspeople appear as frequent subjects in his art."[
Around this time, the artist found support from two sources in Russia. In 1820, Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich, at the behest of his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, visited Friedrich's studio and returned to Saint Petersburg with a number of his paintings. The exchange marked the beginning of a patronage that continued for many years.Not long thereafter, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, tutor to Alexander II, met Friedrich in 1821 and found in him a kindred spirit. For decades Zhukovsky helped Friedrich both by purchasing his work himself and by recommending his art to the royal family; his assistance toward the end of Friedrich's career proved invaluable to the ailing and impoverished artist. Zhukovsky remarked that his friend's paintings "please us by their precision, each of them awakening a memory in our mind."
Friedrich was acquainted with Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810), another leading German painter of the Romantic period. He was also a friend of Georg Friedrich Kersting (1785–1847), who painted him at work in his unadorned studio, and of the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788–1857). Dahl was close to Friedrich during the artist's final years, and he expressed dismay that to the art-buying public, Friedrich's pictures were only "curiosities". While the poet Zhukovsky appreciated Friedrich's psychological themes, Dahl praised the descriptive quality of Friedrich's landscapes, commenting that "artists and connoisseurs saw in Friedrich's art only a kind of mystic, because they themselves were only looking out for the mystic... They did not see Friedrich's faithful and conscientious study of nature in everything he represented".
During this period Friedrich frequently sketched memorial monuments and sculptures for mausoleums, reflecting his obsession with death and the afterlife; he even created designs for some of the funerary art in Dresden's cemeteries. Some of these works were lost in the fire that destroyed art's Glass Palace (1931) and later in the 1945 bombing of Dresden.
Later life and death
Two Men Contemplating the Moon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1825–30
Georg Friedrich Kersting, Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio (1819) Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Kersting portrays an aged Friedrich holding a maulstick at his canvas.
The grave of Caspar David Friedrich, Trinitatis-Friedhof, Dresden
Friedrich's reputation steadily declined over the final fifteen years of his life. As the ideals of early Romanticism passed from fashion, he came to be viewed as an eccentric and melancholy character, out of touch with the times. Gradually his patrons fell away. By 1820, he was living as a recluse and was described by friends as the "most solitary of the solitary". Towards the end of his life he lived in relative poverty and was increasingly dependent on the charity of friends. He became isolated and spent long periods of the day and night walking alone through woods and fields, often beginning his strolls before sunrise.
In June 1835, Friedrich suffered his first stroke, which left him with minor limb paralysis and greatly reduced his ability to paint. As a result, he was unable to work in oil; instead he was limited to watercolour, sepia and reworking older compositions.
Although his vision remained strong, he had lost the full strength of his hand. Yet he was able to produce a final 'black painting', Seashore by Moonlight (1835–36), described by Vaughan as the "darkest of all his shorelines, in which richness of tonality compensates for the lack of his former finesse".
Symbols of death appeared in his other work from this period. Soon after his stroke, the Russian royal family purchased a number of his earlier works, and the proceeds allowed him to travel to Teplitz—in today's Czech Republic—to recover.
During the mid-1830s, Friedrich began a series of portraits and he returned to observing himself in nature. As the art historian William Vaughan has observed, however, "He can see himself as a man greatly changed. He is no longer the upright, supportive figure that appeared in Two Men Contemplating the Moon in 1819. He is old and stiff... he moves with a stoop".
By 1838, he was capable only of working in a small format. He and his family were living in poverty and grew increasingly dependent for support on the charity of friends.
Friedrich: Cemetery Entrance Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden
Friedrich died in Dresden on 7 May 1840, and was buried in Dresden's Trinitatis-Friedhof (Trinity Cemetery) east of the city centre (the entrance to which he had painted some 15 years earlier). The simple flat gravestone lies north-west of the central roundel within the main avenue.
By the time of his death, his reputation and fame were waning, and his passing was little noticed within the artistic community.His artwork had certainly been acknowledged during his lifetime, but not widely. While the close study of landscape and an emphasis on the spiritual arts of nature were commonplace in contemporary art, his work was too original and personal to be well understood. By 1838, his work no longer sold or received attention from critics; the Romantic movement had been moving away from the early idealism that the artist had helped found.
After his death, Carl Gustav Carus wrote a series of articles which paid tribute to Friedrich's transformation of the conventions of landscape painting. However, Carus' articles placed Friedrich firmly in his time, and did not place the artist within a continuing tradition.Only one of his paintings had been reproduced as a print, and that was produced in very few copies.
Themes
Landscape and the sublime
“ What the newer landscape artists see in a circle of a hundred degrees in Nature they press together unmercifully into an angle of vision of only forty-five degrees. And furthermore, what is in Nature separated by large spaces, is compressed into a cramped space and overfills and oversatiates the eye, creating an unfavorable and disquieting effect on the viewer. ”
— Caspar David Friedrich
The visualisation and portrayal of landscape in an entirely new manner was Friedrich's key innovation. He sought not just to explore the blissful enjoyment of a beautiful view, as in the classic conception, but rather to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature. Friedrich was instrumental in transforming landscape in art from a backdrop subordinated to human drama to a self-contained emotive subject. Friedrich's paintings commonly employed the Rückenfigur—a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human. Friedrich created the notion of a landscape full of romantic feeling—die romantische Stimmungslandschaft.His art details a wide range of geographical features, such as rock coasts, forests, and mountain scenes. He often used the landscape to express religious themes. During his time, most of the best-known paintings were viewed as expressions of a religious mysticism.
The Abbey in the Oakwood (1808–10). 110.4 × 171 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Albert Boime writes, "Like a scene from a horror movie, it brings to bear on the subject all the Gothic clichés of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries".
Friedrich said, "The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead." Expansive skies, storms, mist, forests, ruins and crosses bearing witness to the presence of God are frequent arts in Friedrich's landscapes. Though death finds symbolic expression in boats that move away from shore—a Charon-like motif—and in the poplar tree, it is referenced more directly in paintings like The Abbey in the Oakwood (1808–10), in which monks carry a coffin past an open grave, toward a cross, and through the portal of a church in ruins.
He was one of the first artists to portray winter landscapes in which the land is rendered as stark and dead. Friedrich's winter scenes are solemn and still—according to the art historian Hermann Beenken, Friedrich painted winter scenes in which "no man has yet set his foot. The theme of nearly all the older winter pictures had been less winter itself than life in winter. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was thought impossible to leave out such motifs as the crowd of skaters, the wanderer... It was Friedrich who first felt the wholly detached and distinctive features of a natural life. Instead of many tones, he sought the one; and so, in his landscape, he subordinated the composite chord into one single basic note".
The Sea of Ice (1823–24), Kunsthalle Hamburg. This scene has been described as "a stunning composition of near and distant forms in an Arctic image".
Bare oak trees and tree stumps, such as those in Raven Tree (c. 1822), Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (c. 1833), and art Bush under a Setting Sun (c. 1835), are recurring arts of Friedrich's paintings, symbolizing death.Countering the sense of despair are Friedrich's symbols for redemption: the cross and the clearing sky promise eternal life, and the slender moon suggests hope and the growing closeness of Christ.In his paintings of the sea, anchors often appear on the shore, also indicating a spiritual hope.German literature scholar Alice Kuzniar finds in Friedrich's painting a temporality—an evocation of the passage of time—that is rarely highlighted in the visual arts.For example, in The Abbey in the Oakwood, the movement of the monks away from the open grave and toward the cross and the horizon imparts Friedrich's message that the final destination of man's life lies beyond the grave.
Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1830–35). 34 × 44 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. A couple gaze longingly at nature. Dressed in "Old German" clothes, according to Robert Hughes they are "scarcely different in tone or modelling from the deep dramas of nature around them".
With dawn and dusk constituting prominent themes of his landscapes, Friedrich's own later years were characterized by a growing pessimism. His work becomes darker, revealing a fearsome monumentality. The Wreck of the Hope—also known as The Polar Sea or The Sea of Ice (1823–24)—perhaps best summarizes Friedrich's ideas and aims at this point, though in such a radical way that the painting was not well received. Completed in 1824, it depicted a grim subject, a shipwreck in the Arctic Ocean; "the image he produced, with its grinding slabs of travertine-colored floe ice chewing up a wooden ship, goes beyond documentary into allegory: the frail bark of human aspiration crushed by the world's immense and glacial indifference."
Friedrich's written commentary on aesthetics was limited to a collection of aphorisms set down in 1830, in which he explained the need for the artist to match natural observation with an introspective scrutiny of his own personality. His best-known remark advises the artist to "close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards."He rejected the overreaching portrayals of nature in its "totality", as found in the work of contemporary painters like Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803–84) and art Anton Koch (1768–1839).
Loneliness and death
Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, by Carl Johann Baehr, 1836, New Masters Gallery, Dresden
Both Friedrich's life and art have at times been perceived by some to have been marked with an overwhelming sense of loneliness.Art historians and some of his contemporaries attribute such interpretations to the losses suffered during his youth to the bleak outlook of his adulthood,while Friedrich's pale and withdrawn appearance helped reinforce the popular notion of the "taciturn man from the North".
Friedrich suffered depressive episodes in 1799, 1803–1805, c.1813, in 1816 and between 1824 and 1826. There are noticeable thematic shifts in the works he produced during these episodes, which see the emergence of such motifs and symbols as vultures, owls, graveyards and ruins.From 1826 these motifs became a permanent feature of his output, while his use of color became more dark and muted. Carus wrote in 1929 that Friedrich "is surrounded by a thick, gloomy cloud of spiritual uncertainty", though the noted art historian and curator Hubertus Gassner disagrees with such notions, seeing in Friedrich's work a positive and life-affirming subtext inspired by Freemasonry and art.

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