The Romantic period itself (generally regarded as 1800-1900 AD) was characterised by a rejection of (and, therefore, rebellion against) hitherto-popular Classicist principles of design in favour of the use of majestic landscapes as an independent subject, where previously they were merely employed to establish context for others. These landscapes were almost exclusively contrived to emphasise some emotive and/or imaginative concept, as the Romanticists considered it necessary to usher in a new, more humane spiritual age. Before one analyses such a convention, however, it must also be noted that the notion of Romanticism was both an artistic and intellectual movement; flourishing prose and symphony abounded during the late 1700s-late 1800s. By the 1900s, the world had little (and diminishing) use for romance.
Caspar David Friedrich, born in the once-thriving (and, at the time, Swedish) German port of Greifswald, Sept. 5, 1774, died May 7, 1840) was, by all accounts, a deeply sentimental and reserved man. Quite apart from what might be seen as the natural predisposition of an introverted child to dejection and sorrow (a common ascription, even during Friedrich’s lifetime), a number of traumatic events occurred within Friedrich’s early years which forcefully moulded his personal (and, correspondingly, artistic) leanings. More specifically, the most traumatic occurrences were the death of his mother (while he was merely seven years of age) and, later, the death of his brother Christoffer (who drowned while attempting to prevent Friedrich himself from doing so). These maladies, in conjunction with the domineering education of a fervently Protestant father, conspired to instill in Friedrich a deep sense of religious mysticism, a morbid fascination with death and an abiding melancholy in relation to the transitory nature of the human condition. Consequentially, Friedrich (who studied at the academy in Copenhagen, considered one of the more liberal European institutions of the era) was one of the primary exponents of the Romanticist style – a convention which permitted escape into the realm of imagination, which was Friedrich’s primary motivation to create art.
What distinguished Friedrich from other Romanticists is that he never painted scenes directly derived 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 ignored established rules of perspective for aesthetic impact. Most controversially, though, Friedrich’s work heralded a divergence from traditional Christian symbolism, as the Romantic worship of nature finds literal expression in his work (as detailed below) – he was not, however, adherent to the purist Romantic tradition of unfettered emotional expression either as his paintings often require intellectual decoding.
In summation, Friedrich added his own (at the time utterly unique) definition to Romanticism. He defied two traditions – that of religious symbolism, and of Romanticism as being a purely emotional pursuit – and, having done so, added new character and vitality to it. He was one of the primary exponents of this convention; an artistic legacy essential to the development of modern art (for its emphasis of the importance of imagination). Numerous individuals can be seen to have derived inspiration from – or even directly imitated – his works. The story of his life and philosophies (as contrasted with his works) is a scintillating one and makes for engaging study.
Two works I have analysed are ‘the Cross in the Mountains’ (1807-1808) and ‘the Large Enclosure near Dresden’ (c. 1832).