Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)

The painter Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald in Vorpommern (see map). His first drawing teacher was Johann Gottfried Quistorp, a friend of the Romantic poet Ludwig Theobul Kosegarten, who lived on Rügen and was, like Quistorp, fascinated by megaliths. Like many contemporary travellers, Friedrich too was attracted to the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the island of Rügen (Bock 1927). It is quite likely that Kosegarten had introduced the young Friedrich not only to contemporary Romanticist thought and interpretation of the landscape, but also to local megaliths as art themes (Vaughan 1972: 18-9). Friedrich undertook a trip through the island in 1806, during which he drew a number of megaliths in his sketchbooks; some were (much) later incorporated into oil paintings. Journeys elsewhere in Vorpommern led him to draw other megaliths. Apart from a number of drawings, sepia and watercolours depicting megaliths (Friedrich 1974), there are several preserved oil paintings by Friedrich which show megaliths (after Grütter 1986: 218, note 220):
 

  • Hünengrab im Schnee (1807) (see image left)
  • Böhmische Landschaft mit See (c. 1810)
  • Wanderer am Meer (c. 1817)
  • Neubrandenburg (c. 1817)
  • Gedächtnisbild für einen gefallenen Soldaten der Freiheitskriege (1820)
  • Hünengrab im Herbst (c. 1820) (see image right)
  • Der Rabenbaum (c. 1822), a tumulus?
  • Spaziergang in der Abenddämmerung (1830–1835) (see image below)

Not all of Friedrich's motives have been clearly identified, but among the monuments depicted appear to be the megaliths in Dwasieden, Nadelitz, Nobbin, Silvitz, and Gützkow, possibly also in Damerow, as well as the Opferstein of Quoltitz (Grütter 1986: 114-5, 185-92; P.Herfert 28.8.1996, pers. comm.). The megalith of Nobbin was probably shown on the now lost oil painting Abend am Ostseestrand (n.d.).

Caspar David Friedrich became the most prominent painter of the Romantic movement in Germany and was strongly influenced by the work of German Romanticists such as Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Friedrich Schlegel (Schenk 1966; Koerner 1990: chapter 3). Megaliths, as symbols in the landscape, were significant and meaningful to many Romantic painters and poets (Grütter 1986: chapter 6; Smiles 1994: chapter 8). In Germany, the overall number of paintings with megaliths as a motive gradually increases during the first half of the nineteenth century, peaks just after Friedrich's death, and virtually ends around 1870 (Bock 1927: 84-5).

Nostalgia and sentimentalism were a common feature of German Romanticism. Subjective feelings and emotions, sensual and bodily experiences were emphasised (hence our use of the term 'romantic') against reason, science, authority and the tradition of the Enlightenment (Schenk 1966). Behind this movement, which mainly influenced the arts, was a great deal of philosophical thought: Novalis allegedly once said that 'to romanticise' is to discover the world's original meaning (Koerner 1990: 24). Nostalgia for ages remote in time provided an important part of such a romantic view of the world. The past was seen as emotionally complete, therefore human, and without the many doubts and disintegrations of the present at the time. In extreme cases, the past even gained metaphysical significance. As H.G.Schenk argued, "the most ominous aspect of the Romantic attitude to the past must be seen in the half-conscious tendency to use history as a substitute for religion" (1966: 45); history provided a 'replacement-religion'. This Romantic feeling for the past focused preferably on the Christian Middle Ages but it could also include prehistory (Schenk 1966: 34-9, 42). By the first decades of the nineteenth century, scholars such as William Stukeley, Rasmus Nyerup, and Friedrich Lisch had laid some of the foundations of the later developing discipline of archaeology, and their work did not apparently leave the Romantics unaffected. In addition, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried Herder contributed to the Romantic nostalgia of the past with their idealised 'noble savage'-image of prehistoric people. This view can explain why historic monuments, such as old churches but also megaliths, when painted by Friedrich, are generally surrounded by something 'noble' and 'sacred'.

The positive view of the past in Friedrich's paintings was also due to his pride in the national heritage of Germany and his patriotic support for the restoration movement after the Napoleonic wars, which formed another component of Romantic thought. The megaliths shown are thus not those of Vorpommern but those of a united German nation and fatherland, thus acquiring a political meaning (Grütter 1986: chapter 2, 190-1). Friedrich's landscapes can be seen as "national landscapes" and they express a wish and hope for "national freedom" (Rautmann 1979: 48-56 and passim). The depicted landscape images represent metaphors of a course of German politics and history which was desirable for Friedrich: holding on to the 'national' soil on which they stand, ancient oak trees and prehistoric monuments heroically withstand opposing forces (Jensen 1980: 29-31; Gross 1994: 13-15, 20, 50). Prehistoric monuments feature in Friedrich's landscape paintings as symbols of both a national and a pagan past. Megaliths are remnants of a distant, non-Christian past and as such they are of an almost timeless quality, contrasting with the Christian religion, with contemporary politics as well as with the immediate, natural landscape of Friedrich's present.

Together with a certain fascination with the past as such, characteristic of Friedrich's paintings is a "somewhat morbid Romantic peculiarity of the worship of ruins" together with some "nihilist tendencies latent in the Romantic Movement" (Schenk 1966: 44; Koerner 1990: 23). It was an age in which royal houses all over Europe erected artificial ruins in their gardens, or in landscape parks. Apparently, the importance of morbidity as well as a certain melancholy in many of Friedrich's paintings was also caused by him witnessing his brother drowning (Koerner 1990: 67). Some of Friedrich's favourite objects were lonely and untouched ruins of Gothic churches or their churchyards in a dramatic forest landscape. But 'prehistoric ruins' such as megaliths could fulfill the same role, especially since they can easily be painted as part of a scenic landscape (Vaughan 1972: 23). Moreover, ancient burials are directly associated with death. Megaliths thus make perfect expressions of Romantic nihilism and melancholy as well as symbols of human vanity and death; they become true 'denk-mals'.

One of Friedrich's and the Romanticists' desires was to picture "the experience of divinity in a secular world" (Rosenblum 1975: 14). Many of Friedrich's pictures are dominated by a mysterious and quasi-religious aura of nature with its dramas and obscurities. Human beings, in his paintings, are generally helpless against the forces of an overwhelming nature. Often, Friedrich's landscapes evoke something mystical, supernatural and otherworldly, even pious. This is most evident in those paintings which are nominally Christian. But Friedrich's 'pure' landscapes too invite an almost religious contemplation of a divine and pantheistic world. For him, there were no boundaries between the natural and the spiritual, the secular and the religious spheres (Rosenblum 1975: 14–28). In this very context, ancient monuments become locations of an eternal spirit of the landscape which is there and yet elusively nebulous. The aura of dolmens and cromlechs is almost visible in Friedrich's paintings.

In addition, most of Friedrich's painting are highly symbolic or allegorical, and carry a direct Christian meaning (Vaughan 1972; Koerner 1990: chapter 7; Bailey 1989). Christianity, especially that of the Middle Ages as a nostalgic example, was looked at by the Romanticists as a way out of the nihilistic experience of spiritual insecurity and dwindling faith (Schenk 1966: 34). A great number of Friedrich's paintings, such as those of his later work showing harbour and ship scenes, illustrate the crossing of the threshold between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the life-cycle from youth to maturity to old age, or the failing of human hopes (Rosenblum 1975: 29-35). The prehistoric monuments in Friedrich's paintings are more than simple contrasts to Christianity. They form part of wider Christian allegories about time, death, and human endeavour.

A selection of Caspar David Friedrich's paintings can be viewed on WWW pages maintained by 


Literature

Bailey, Colin J. (1989) Religious Symbolism in Caspar David Friedrich. Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 71(3), 5-20.

Bock, Georg (1927) Die Bedeutung der Insel Rügen für die deutsche Landschaftsmalerei. Greifswald: H.Adler.

Friedrich, Caspar David (1974) Das Gesamte Graphische Werk. München: Roger & Bernhard.

Gross, Friedrich (1994) Caspar David Friedrich. Dortmund: Harenberg Edition.

Grütter, Tina (1986) Melancholie und Abgrund. Die Bedeutung des Gesteins bei Caspar David Friedrich. Ein Beitrag zum Symboldenken der Frühromantik. Berlin: Reimer.

Jensen, Jens Christian (1980) Caspar David Friedrich. Leben und Werk. Fifth Edition. Köln: DuMont.

Koerner, Joseph L. (1990) Caspar David Friedrich and the subject of landscape. London: Reaktion Books.

Rautmann, Peter (1979) Caspar David Friedrich. Landschaft als Sinnbild entfalteter bürgerlicher Wirklichkeitsaneignung. Kunstwissenschaftliche Studien, vol. 7. Frankfurt/M: Lang.

Rosenblum, Robert (1975) Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition. Friedrich to Rothko. London: Thames and Hudson.

Schenk, H.G. (1966) The Mind of the European Romantics. London: Constable.

Smiles, Sam (1994) The Image of Antiquity. Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Vaughan, William (1972) Caspar David Friedrich. In: W.Vaughan, H.Börsch-Supan, H.-J.Neidhardt (eds) Caspar David Friedrich 1774-1840. Romantic Landscape Painting in Dresden, pp. 9-44. London: The Tate Gallery.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 22 August 2006