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To Be lost in “The Infinite Landscapes” of Caspar David Friedrich

The artistic vision of Caspar David Friedrich stretched from the coastlines to the mountain ranges. He perfectly encapsulated the famous words written by the poet Lord Byron, "I love not men the less, but nature more." In all his paintings, and the infinite landscapes within them, one could easily see the world through his very own eyes. His paintings may remain forever an enduring testament that no matter what century – 17th, 21st, or 311th – man will always stand in awe of only one thing: Nature. 

In this article, we will go through the exhibition "Infinite Landscapes" of the famous German landscape artist of the 17th century Caspar David Friedrich, which is held at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin till August 4, 2024

Moonrise over the Sea, 1822 Öl auf Leinwand, 55 x 71 cm Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie

Who is Casper David Friedrich?

250 years ago, in the seaside town of Greifswald, Germany, a boy was born who would go on to create some of the most spellbinding landscape paintings in German history. His name was Caspar David Friedrich. Fascinated by the beauty of both sea and mountains, he would spend most of his time immersing himself in understanding and imitating the beautiful intricacy he could see in the nature around him. 

From his pencil sketches and detailed drawings, one could guess his inspiration for his famous paintings came from observing and admiring every crack on every rock, the  variegated leaves of trees, the light breaking between the canopy of trees, and the light of the setting sun on the waves. He saw it all, made notes of it, and then holed himself in his studio painting them on blank canvases. 

His work has inspired many artists over the course of centuries. Aside from his self-portraits, his portraits have been painted by his friend Carolina Bardua. There is also a marble bust made by his friend Gottlob Christian Kühn in 1806 at the exhibition. 

His last self-portrait was drawn in the same year he died, in 1810. 

Besides his self-portraits, he was also drawn by his friends Carolina Bardua and Georg Friedrich Kersting. His portrait and depictions of him working in his studio are some of the paintings showcased at the exhibition.  

Portrait drawn by Carolina Bardua in 1810

Friedrich in his studio, drawn by Georg Kersting in 1811 and 1812, respectively.

The Appeal of Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar preferred going outdoors in the early morning and evening time to study the magic of colours during dusk and dawn. He observed and appreciated the most delicate moods of light, the way sunshine or darkness falls on the shapes of trees, bushes, rocks, and clouds. All his paintings consist of expansive skies, distant horizons, and infinity of space and time. The humans in his paintings are either always admiring the beauty of nature or becoming one with the beauty of the scene itself. 

This can best be seen in his following paintings: 

 "Chalk Cliffs on Rügen", painted in 1818   

    "Stages of Life", painted in 1834

"Two Men Contemplating the Moon" painted in ca. 1830-35

He includes humanity in his paintings, to show humans as one with nature, as can be seen in his painting "Forest Interior by Moonlight" painted in ca. 1823-30.

The appeal of Caspar David Friedrich lies in his technique of unusual delicacy, which he utilised to create paintings of longing, hoping, and also doubting. Friedrich is said to have created art to restore the faith that had been decreasing in the aftermath of the Enlightenment period. Every human in his painting stands with their back to us, looking at the same infinite expanse, asking himself or herself, "Where do I locate myself in relation to this world?"

Lost to oblivion after his death, his legacy was brought to the forefront in the early 20th century in the Berlin Nationalgalerie’s exhibition Deutsche Jahrhundertausstellung (German 100-year exhibition). His appeal has not faded into obscurity since then and will continue to do so. 

The Infinite Landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich

When Caspar settled down in Dresden in the autumn of 1798, he wandered in the surrounding areas and developed a deep interest in the immersive study of nature. He drew plants, trees, rock formations, and ruins, with great precision. Before painting in oil, he drew landscapes using brown sepia ink. This can be seen in his famous "The Seasons Cycle" of 1803. 

This painting series contains four pictures "Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter". They express the idea of change in nature and in human life. His philosophical pondering mixed with his sepia ink created these works of art. 

The Seasons Cycle was considered lost after the Second World War, but seventy years later they had been rediscovered, all but one. Summer only remains as a photograph which was not part of the exhibition. Friedrich created another Seasons Cycle in 1826 and he references these earlier versions in them too. 

Spring shows children playing in the morning. Summer had displayed two lovers in an arbour in a sunlit river valley. In Autumn, the observer follows the mountain slopes to see the towering peaks, and Winter is a moonlit light in a Gothic ruin, where an old man is sitting by an open grave. 

In 1810, Friedrich experienced his first breakthrough in Berlin with his famous painting "Monk by the Sea" and "Abbey among the Oaks" which had been presented in an exhibition and was then purchased by the Prussian king, Frederick William III. 

"The Monk by the Sea", painted in 1808-1810

The almost empty, boundless landscape represents man’s solitude in the face of nature’s infinity. The darker hues indicate how insignificant and fragile the existence of humanity is when compared to the wrath and divinity of nature. The figure in the painting being a monk – a representation of human faith, discipline, and curiosity – is also an attempt to signify that no matter how much we try, humanity will remain clueless and powerless in front of the strength and wisdom of nature. 

"Abbey among the Oaks", painted in 1809/1810

The painting of Abbey among the Oaks shows the funeral process ongoing at a ruin, raising the question: "Where do humans stand between knowledge and faith in the face of death?" 

Friedrich also painted ‘companion pictures’ i.e. some of these paintings are juxtapositions, while others are unified by a coherent narrative, and some are connected only by their closely related subjects or formal aspects. 

The perpetual change in nature and life is evoked in these pairs of paintings that show changing times of day or the year. This can be seen in paintings such as "View of the Elba Valley" and "Dolmen in the Snow". 

"View of the Elba Valley", painted in 1807                        

"Dolmen in the Snow", painted in 1807

"The Lonely Tree", painted in 1822

Mountains and Shorelines: From the Eyes of Caspar David Friedrich 

When Friedrich ventured out into nature to capture the impressions in numerous drawings, he observed and sketched the ridges of distant mountain ranges, nearby rocks and small shrubberies. His favourite hiking mountain ranges were Saxon Switzerland, Harz, Giant Mountains, and Bohemian Mountains. 

His controversial painting "Cross on a Mountain" was his attempt at conveying the sign of the divine but faced scrutiny as it was shown that the focus was more on nature and less on the divine. But it eventually became a new way of expressing appreciation for both nature and divinity. In his paintings of mountains, two paintings stand out the most. 

The religious aspects had been sidelines, and the immensity of nature was at the forefront of these paintings: "The Waltzmann" and "Rocky Valley".

"The Waltzmann", painted in 1824/1825

"High Mountains", painted in 1824 

"The Riesengebirge", ca. 1830-35

"Riesengebirge landscape with rising fog", ca 1819/1820

"Morning Mist in the Mountains", painted in 1808

When it comes to painting seascapes, Friedrich often captured sailing ships that were either departing or coming back home. He was born in a seaside town, so his longing and reminisce was channeled through his paintings. 

His paintings feature sea and coasts, lakes and rivers with their banks, and also spectacular scenes which he produced only from his imagination as can be seen from his painting "The Sea of Ice". In his paintings of the endless possibilities and reach that the sea holds can be felt – be it the mysteriousness of the moonlit ocean, the sunset illumination, two fishermen gazing out to the infinite horizon that the observer is also seeing. 

His paintings reflect the wonder, curiosity, adventure, and farewell that the sea holds for humanity. 

The paintings which depict the shoreline beauty are: 

"Seacoast in the Moonlight", ca. 1830

"Rocky Reef by the Seashore", 1824

Two Men by the Sea, painted in 1817 

It has been said that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but some things are undeniably beautiful. Even if art is put aside for a minute, the meaning and emotions felt by the artist can be conveyed to others without using words. 

Caspar David Friedrich’s artworks are a testament that landscape paintings are extremely special pieces of art because you see the world through the artist's eyes. It also proves that in the end, all we humans see as valuable is the unbearable beauty in the world. If you wish to look for it, It is everywhere to be found. In the mountains, the ocean, the religious structures, moonlight, sunrise, sunset, and the woods. Be it the 17th century or 21st century or 31st century, humans will love and admire the same thing: Nature. It is a timeless longing and desire to understand, imitate, immortalise and become one with. Friedrich’s paintings give proof that nature’s beauty is eternal and indisputable. 


Text: Oshin Ahlawat


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