Today markes the 233rd birthday of one of my all-time favorite artists—Caspar David Friedrich. Born in 1774, Friedrich created some of the most indelible images of Romanticism , such as Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (above) from 1817. Publishers love to use works by Friedrich, especially Wanderer, for their cover art, knowing that it will always invoke an unmistakably Romantic mood. Artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Jacques-Louis David may represent other aspects of the Romantic period, but nobody painted the Byronic, brooding, pensive, philosophical, quasi-religious landscape like Friedrich.
Raised as a strict Lutheran, Friedrich struggled with his faith throughout his life, especially after the many family deaths that marked his youth, particularly that of his older brother, who died while saving young Caspar after he fell through the surface of an ice-covered lake. The Cross in the Mountains (above), also known as The Tetschen Altar, from 1808 shows how Friedrich forged a unique sense of Christianity merging traditional devotion with an almost pantheistic love of nature. Friedrich loaded his landscapes with religious symbolism, many of it subtle or even coded, or, in the case of The Tetschen Altar, overt symbols such as the Masonic all-seeing eye, which also appears on the back of the United States One Dollar Bill. Other artists have followed Friedrich’s example, particularly the Symbolists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps as a tragic sign of our times today, Thomas Kinkade, self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” borrows freely from Friedrich’s The Cross in the Mountains and other works in his modern, homogenized, vapid reinterpretation of spirituality.
Towards the end of his life, Friedrich grew pessimistic, perhaps losing his long struggle with faith. His works became darker and less hopeful, such as The Sea of Ice (above), which shows the destructive power of nature without the redeeming idea of a loving divinity behind it. Friedrich’s earlier images of ruin always included some softening image of hope—a cripple tossing away his crutches, a cross emerging out of the deepest wood, lovers finding their way by the light of the moon. In 1835, a stroke robbed Friedrich of the ability to paint, effectively ending his career and, 5 years later, his life. Sadly, many of Friedrich’s works (like those of Gustav Klimt) were destroyed during World War II in Germany’s national Gotterdammerung, but the visceral power behind them lives on.