Caspar David Friedrich and the German romantic landscape

In 1991 the paintings and drawings of Caspar David Friedrich from the Hermitage were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago. This was the first opportunity the American public had had to become acquainted with the work of the great German Romantic painter. In the catalogue the art historian Robert  Rosenblum wrote: ‘Only a few decades ago, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) had the status of an underground cult figure in America [...] it was long possible, especially in French and Anglo-American museum territory, to ignore this master’s existence as totally as it was ignored in many histories of modern painting written before the 1960s.’

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Sunset (brothers), ca. 1835
Oil on canvas, 26 x 31

State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

The situation was just the same in the Netherlands as Rosenblum describes in the case of France and the Anglo-American world, the difference being that for most art experts in the Netherlands Friedrich’s paintings and the German art-historical literature on his work represented a suspect world associated with a fatal nationalism fuelled by such notions as Blut und Boden.

Much has changed since then. Friedrich has been ‘in’ for years. For many he has become a cult figure. This has to do with the fact that the experience of nature expressed in his paintings has been shared by many in recent decades. No other painter has so consistently made it visible that man does not naturally form part of the landscape. He stands not in, but facing nature, and can only penetrate to its meaning and beauty through solitary contemplation. He can share this silent vision with at most a single companion. The common experience of the grandeur of the vista creates friendship in the Romantic sense: a unique relationship with another person nurtured  by a shared experience of nature.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
The Rock Gates in Neurathen, ca. 1837
Watercolor over a pencil sketch, 27,9 x 24,5

State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

The idea of exhibiting Friedrich’s works from the Hermitage separately was prompted in part by the fact that the history of their acquisition is so interesting, as shown by the intriguing article by Boris Asvarisc in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition. But apart from that, they form a representative group and include many of his finest paintings and drawings, marking very different moments in Friedrich’s oeuvre. Thanks to the diversity of subjects, they give a wide-ranging picture of the painter’s imaginative world. There is a delicate drawing of the view from the window of Friedrich’s ascetic studio in Dresden. There are grand landscapes, but also harbour views. The moon rises over the sea at Rügen and the sun over the Giant Mountains. It is night in Greifswald harbour. A solitary dreamer sits on the sill of what was once a Gothic window of the monastery on Mount Oybin.  There are images of swans at sunrise, of owls flying in front of a full moon or landing on a gravestone or looking at us from the crumbling window opening of a medieval ruin. Many such symbolic motifs can be found in the Hermitage’s Friedrich collection. In particular, there are many figures seen from the back, while sunk in contemplating the majestic views. The group as a whole makes it possible to become well acquainted with the artist Caspar David Friedrich.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Window Looking over the Park, ca. 1837
Sepia over a pencil sketch, 39,8 x 30,5

State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

When we looked more closely at the Hermitage’s collection of German paintings of  the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for this exhibition, a rare opportunity to show Friedrich’s work in context presented itself. It became clear to me that the prominent position of artists from the German-speaking countries in St Petersburg around 1800 had resulted in there being a surprisingly rich collection of German paintings from that period in the storerooms. It included important paintings and drawings by landscapists who are hardly if at all known in the Netherlands. So it was among the racks of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century paintings that the idea was born of devoting an exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam to showing what a revolution Friedrich had brought about in German landscape painting. It is only when his works are juxtaposed with traditional landscapes that it becomes clear why at the time so many critics could not or would not understand Friedrich’s work. It is unique, but the historical dimension of that uniqueness only becomes evident when  his paintings are shown in context.

Jacob Philipp Hackert (1737-1780)
The Grand Cascade at Tivoli, 1783
Oil on canvas, 120 x 170
State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

Jakob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807)
In his article Asvarisc quotes these words of Friedrich: ‘For our art critics our German sun, moon, lakes and rivers are not enough. If the aim is elevated art and beauty, it must all be Italian.’ Here the painter again makes it clear that the historical importance of his art lies not only in how he depicts nature, but also in the fact that on grounds of principle he opted for the aesthetic reclamation of his own world and did not go off to Arcadia on the other side of the Alps. When he wrote those words, Friedrich must have had in mind paintings by German Italianates, whose work may also be found in the Hermitage. By far the most important of them was Jakob Philipp Hackert. He was regarded as the German Claude Lorrain, just as Richard Wilson was known as the English Claude and Claude-Joseph Vernet as the second French Claude.

Carl Ferdinand von Kügelgen (1772-1832)
Backhisarai (from a Series of Views of the Crimea), 1824
Pen and brown wash over a pencil sketch, 31,5 x 41,2

State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

Carl Ferdinand von Kügelgen (1772-1832)
Another fascinating group of drawings by a German artists of Friedrich’s time is that by Carl von Kügelgen. He was the twin brother of the painter Gerhard von Kügelgen, who made his name when in 1809 in Weimar he painted the portrait of Goethe that became world-famous. In 1791 the brothers travelled to Rome together to develop their artistic gifts. In 1796 they went to Riga and then to St Petersburg, where Gerhard became much in demand as a portrait painter.  He returned to the German-speaking lands in 1805 and settled in Dresden. There he became friendly with Friedrich. He did not share Friedrich’s ideas about art, but nonetheless always defended his work against the many critics who had little sympathy for it.

His brother Carl  stayed in St Petersburg and became one of the most interesting landscapists of the age. He worked for the tsars Paul I and Alexander I, who sent him off to record in drawings the beauty of the landscapes in their vast empire. So now his mission was not to use his art to force nature into pre-existing patterns, but to make visible the character of nature in regions that were virgin territory from the aesthetic point of view. The drawings he made on his travels served as starting points for paintings and lithographs.

Carl Ferdinand von Kügelgen (1772-1832)
Sudak (from a Series of Views of the Crimea), 1824
Pen and brown wash over a pencil sketch, 31,5 x 41,5
State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg

  • 30-11-2008

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Comments (1)

Carlos Herrera
Said this on 22-8-2010 At 08:23 pm
Thank you for this compilation of valuable references to the spirit and ideas that fuel the work of these great painters.

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