Once again, Caspar David Friedrich has elected to use an expansive landscape to demonstrate the human condition as a fragile one. Barely visible, by the tree-line near the end of the waterway is a miniscule boat. Slightly divergent from previous instances (this ship is yet another human being, albeit metaphorically), but where previous figures have been set apart from the landscape (often clearly in the foreground, close to the viewer), this one is a component of the landscape by virtue of its lack of conspicuousness. When one considers that this painting, created during a period in which Friedrich suffered debilitating ailment, displays the end of the water body (flowing water is often a potent metaphor for human life) and, correspondingly, the boat itself toward the bank, we can clearly see that Friedrich suspected that his was to be a terminal illness. Furthermore to these elements, though, we can see the summer sunset, something bright and glorious about to expire. More subtly, though, we can see in certain areas the water infiltrating the ground, suggesting quiet subsidence. We may also note that the most conspicuous element is the centre of the water body which is portrayed – the area immediately prior to the shadowed bank (and here we see yet another reference to transition, from the ‘light’ of life to something obfuscated and unknown).
This work was created only a few years prior to the first (and crippling) stroke Friedrich suffered in 1835, and as such Friedrich retained much of his capacity to paint, although his health was generally declining and melancholy images returned to his work. Recognising that he may have little time left – as indeed the case proved to be – Friedrich was attempting to achieve a Gesamtkunstwerk; a complete and comprehensive work of art. Around the time this work was created, Friedrich returned to the use of tempera and watercolour in the creation of illuminated transparentmalareien (transparent paintings), although this particular work remains faithful to his past use of oils (since 1808).
By this time, Friedrich’s art had precipitously declined in popularity and as such many of his works were ignored or unheard-of. The few remaining buyers he had came from artistic circles in Saxony and the Imperial Court in Russia. One of his patrons, the poet Wassily Zhukovsky, would later visit Friedrich, after he suffered a second stroke (1939). By this point Friedrich had entirely lost the capacity even to draw, and Zhukovsky is said to have remarked “He is a broken man. He cries like a child.” Often in Friedrich’s later pieces we witness indications of regret. Such works, which include ‘Sea Piece by Moonlight’ (which displays a ship, silent and alone upon an ethereal sea), ‘the Dreamer’ (in which a young man sits on a gothic ruin, pondering the setting sun) and ‘Stages of Life’ (in which an elderly man stares absently out to sea, where tall ships slowly vanish into the sunset), bear witness to the notion that Friedrich never achieved the emotional peace and spiritual conciliation with life that he sought so fervently. Friedrich died, impoverished and bitter, in 1940.