Having recently looked at the Art of Germany, students of our Wednesday ArtAble classes have been inspired by the magical landscapes of Casper David Friedrich and are currently recreating atmospheric landscapes from memory and imagination – one even transformed into an Artist’s Box. For that reason we have chosen Friedrich as our Artist in Profile for August:
Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich was born on 5th September 1774 in Griefswald on the Baltic Sea in Germany. He was the sixth son in a family of ten children. His parents were Lutheran and consequently he had a strict upbringing although the family was prosperous with his father Adolf a successful soap and candle maker. Friedrich lost his mother at the age of seven years and experienced another tragic event when aged just thirteen, he witnessed his brother Johann drown when he fell through ice on a lake. Some reports suggest Johann was in the process of trying to save Friedrich who was also in danger on the ice. He also experienced the deaths of two sisters Maria and Elisabeth and some observers relate Friedrich’s melancholy nature to these childhood events. However, his contemporaries in adult life remarked on his sense of humour, self-irony, and the ability to tell jokes.
In 1790, Friedrich began his art studies at the University of Greifswald and in 1794 entered the Academy of Copenhagen where he studied under influential teachers such as landscape painter Jens Juel and artist Christian August Lorentzen. A talented student from the outset, Friedrich made copies of casts from antique sculpture, followed by life drawing.
Eventually, Friedrich moved to Dresden where he experimented with different works usually natural subjects and topographical, using sepia ink, India ink, and watercolours. He then took up oil painting where landscapes became his preferred works. He would travel around Germany to mountain and coastal areas and his paintings depict a wonderful array of harbours, morning mist, hills, woods, and forests using light effects closely observed from nature. This depiction of light specific the Baltic coast had never been captured before and the illumination of moon and sun on water and clouds featured in the works are quite stunning.
Like Joseph Mallord William Turner, he captured a spirituality and appreciation of nature depicting the trees, forests and natural phenomena as almost divine, which was not without controversy at the time. He was recognised as an artist by the Berlin Academy and some years later the Dresden Academy.
Friedrich married late in life to Caroline Bommer. The marriage was blessed with three children. Marriage did not really change Friedrich’s personality but his work post-marriage have a lighter feel. Females begin to appear in the work and the colour palette is brighter.
The artist found favour with the Russian royal family who purchased paintings from him and he became friends with Vasily Zhukovsky the poet, who was tutor of Alexander II heir to the Russian throne. Zhukovsky helped Friedrich in later life by recommending paintings as the artist had become quite poor.
Caspar David Friedrich was acquainted with other leading German Romantic painters and other artistic fellows such as the poet Goethe, Philipp Otto Runge, Georg Friedrich Kersting, and Johann Christian Dahl. Friedrich suffered a stroke in June 1835, which caused some paralysis of limbs. Despite taking the popular rest cures of the day, his painting ability was diminished. His work, which now was executed in sepia and watercolour, began to feature symbology of death frequently.
Sadly, Friedrich’s reputation declined throughout his final fifteen years of life. The ideal of his Romanticism fell out of fashion and he was seen as a melancholy and eccentric character, who was out of touch with the zeitgeist of the times. As patrons fell away, he lived a reclusive lifestyle and gradually his patrons fell away and by, 1838 he became poverty stricken relying on the mercy of friends for charitable donations. He spent his days and nights walking alone through fields and forests and died in obscurity in May 1840.
His work fell out of favour, although he was renowned in his lifetime. He was rediscovered in 1906 when a 32 painting and sculptures exhibition took place in Berlin. The 1920’s saw a new appreciation of his work by the Expressionists and later still, the Existentialists and Surrealists would be inspired by his work. Today he is seen as a painter of global importance and a true icon of the German Romantic movement.
During his lifetime even through periods of depression and illness, Friedrich was prolific as an artist producing more than 500 different attributed works. His vision was that his art should be appreciated as purely aesthetic which was in keeping with the Romantic ideal of the time. Consequently, he titled his pictures with caution ensuring they were not overly evocative.
Caspar David Friedrich’s work is difficult to date as he did not date his paintings but instead kept a journal or logbook identifying the works. Scholars have interpreted this logbook with some accuracy to enable some works to be dated.