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Caspar David FRIEDRICH
Caspar David FRIEDRICH
Caspar David FRIEDRICH
(1774-1840)

Friedrich Caspar David

Romanticism was an early nineteenth-century aesthetic movement encompassing nature, nationalism, and spirituality. In Germany, it found perfect expression in the music of Beethoven, the writings of Goethe, and the art of Caspar David Friedrich. Today, Friedrich is recognised as the quintessential German Romantic painter. In his lifetime, though, he achieved only modest fame, and his talent was cheapened by imitation. His melancholy, sometimes morbid style appealed to Romantic tastes, but fell from favour as the ardour of Romanticism cooled.

Born 5 September 1774, Friedrich is often compared to his contemporaries, the landscape painters Turner and Constable. But his paintings are not landscapes; Friedrich never painted from nature. He travelled throughout northern Europe and made detailed sketches of its terrain, but his paintings contain elements of different settings in wholly imagined scenes. Friedrich actually ignores the law of nature for aesthetic impact.

In his paintings Friedrich rarely depicts people, except to emphasise nature's vastness. When figures appear in his paintings, they stand with their backs to the viewer, lost in contemplation. Friedrich is primarily a religious artist. The Romantic worship of nature finds literal expression in his work, which articulates the artist's Protestant faith through natural symbolism. On a sensual level, his paintings deliver a frisson of ecstasy or horror. But they also demand intellectual decoding.

The transience of human existence, the redemptive powers of nature, man at the mercy of the elements - all are stock themes of Romanticism. For Friedrich, though, they had personal meaning too. At 13, Friedrich fell through the surface of a frozen lake and nearly perished. His brother saved Friedrich's life but drowned in the effort. Friedrich's mother died in 1781, and a sister ten years later. His dark, deeply religious paintings may reflect these childhood tragedies.

After studying in Copenhagen, Friedrich left his home, Greifswald, for Dresden, the art capital of Europe in the nineteenth century. He specialised in sepia, watercolours, and topographical drawings, turning to oils by 1808. In 1825, Friedrich suffered a severe illness from which he never fully recovered. A decade later, a stroke left him partially paralysed, and too weak to paint in oils. Instead, he returned to the watercolours and sepias of his youth. But he was a broken, bitter man. He died on 7th May 1840, impoverished and obscure.

Friedrich remained shrouded in obscurity until the 1890s, when he was rediscovered by the Symbolists. In 1945, fire gutted the National Gallery Berlin , destroying many of his masterpieces. The scarcity of Friedrich's paintings heightens their emotive power today.


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