Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team. 

The divine is everywhere, even in a grain of sand.” — Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808

by Sara Robertson, Curator

Throughout human history, art has had the ability to outwit time, bringing its creators stardom and, some would say, immortality through their work. Sure, there are obstacles along the way: paintings deteriorate, sculptures are destroyed, pieces are lost, and some artists’ work is never rightfully acknowledged. But for the lucky few who make it, their work and their name are imprinted into human history, even if the meaning of their work changes from era to era. This metaphorical road to artistic achievement, defined success, and notoriety isn’t a walk in the park—just ask Caspar David Friedrich. To say his artistic journey was melodramatic is an understatement.

It’s hard to imagine an artist as talented as Caspar David Friedrich—who created the sublime landscapes seen in our recent gallery—would have had such an unstable career. Alas, in the tormented world of art, even the gifted are misunderstood (i.e. Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Munch, the list goes on). Friedrich, a nineteenth century German-born painter, is regarded today as an influential, forward-thinking, and critical figure of the German Romantic movement. But that wasn’t always the case. To Friedrich’s contemporary audience, his works were strange, difficult to understand and relate to, and by the end of the nineteenth century, along with the emergence of modernization, they were disregarded as inanimate scenes from the bygone age. It took a while—a century to be exact—for people to come around. Granted, there were a few bumps in the road.

While he was still working, Friedrich’s landscapes, as mentioned before, weren’t understood. They were deemed as too personal, and difficult for the audience to imagine themselves within these vast, expansive scenes with little human presence. It’s ironic that today, those are the qualities that make his work forward-thinking, mysterious, intriguing, and highly praised. There were a few admirers during his career, including prestigious commissions by the Russian Royal family. Patrons waned away, however, as soon as the ideals of modernization took hold. Whatever success he once held was lost by the end of his life.

Caspar David Friedrich, Morning in the Mountains

Not all hope was lost for Friedrich’s legacy. It seemed, as most artists’ tragic tales go, that his career blossomed after his death. The Expressionists of the 1920s discovered his work and in the early 1930s, Surrealists were inspired by his mystical approach. Also during this time, however, Friedrich gained an admirer that was not-so-admirable. With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Hitler was intent on making Germany the center of society and culture. We know that this included maintaining the largest and most expansive collection of artwork in the world. Friedrich, with his beautiful portrayal of a romantic Germany, was chosen as one of Hitler’s favorite artists. Talk about guilty by association—Friedrich was coined as Hitler’s artist, and the public connected his work to the harsh nationalistic ideals of one of the world’s most infamous dictators.

But let’s not dwell on the past. As an avid admirer of Friedrich’s work, it is my duty to end this on a high note. So, after years of disapproval, in the 1970’s Friedrich’s work finally made a comeback, acting as inspiration to some of Germany’s (and the world’s) most well-known artists. Anselm Kiefer, a German artist whose work provoked the rocky past of German nationalism and how it was abused in the time of Hitler, used themes from one of Friedrich’s best pieces, The Wanderer (1818). In a series of performances called The Occupations, 1969, Kiefer had himself photographed in Friedrich-esque landscapes, with his back to us like the figure in Friedrich’s painting.

Caspar D. Friedrich, The Wanderer, 1818

Anselm Kiefer, Occupations, 1969

“By posing in a traditionally Romantic stance and extending his arm in the Nazi salute, Kiefer connects these two seemingly disparate periods of German history to suggest that Germany’s love of country has been an enduring part of their history at least since the early nineteenth century. The imperialist and nationalistic attitudes of the Romantic era, instigated by Napoleonic invasions, were manipulated by the leaders of the Third Reich, leading to the tragedies of the Holocaust.” (The Art Story)

Other artists that Friedrich inspired include Max Ernst, who saw the allegorical meanings within Friedrich’s works, translated that into his own perspective art. Edvard Munch connected with Friedrich’s representative landscapes as well, referencing back to the nineteenth century artist’s scenes for influence. Contemporary artist Gerhard Richter revisited Friedrich’s landscape, adapting the romantic scenes into his blurry visions.

To end, I will write how Friedrich intended his work to be. He sought to convey the connection between nature and spirituality, which he himself found through his contemplation of the physical outdoors that he frequented, and landscapes he painted to reflect. To him, nature was not merely a beautiful view; he extended the concept’s physical bounds to include significant spiritual meaning. He portrayed human presence as details, minute in scale in comparison to the mountains, trees, and clouds that were the central focus in his paintings. He painted a glorified vision of Germany that represented his love for both nature and the untainted beauty of his country.

Although Friedrich’s time in this world may have not been as ideal in terms of his artistic career or perception, his work survived through the downfall of Romanticism, Nazi Germany, and Modernism, and eventually made its way into the good graces it deserves. Friedrich may have been dismayed by the neglect his art received, but it did not show in the pieces that he created. Rather, he maintained his aesthetic and emotion-evoking vision throughout. It is said that instead of painting for the public, he turned to painting for himself.

I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full; I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks in order to be what I am.” — Caspar David Friedrich