Painted in 1818, Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is a masterpiece of Romantic art.
As one of the most famous German painters of all time, Caspar David Friedrich paintings of allegorical landscapes and motionless contemplative figures are particularly well-known.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog presents a fashionable gentleman, cane in hand, standing and gazing into a misty valley. Vague mountains and rolling hills are just visible in the background, whilst trees and rocky outcrops emerge from the middle distance. The fog-covered landscape drifts off indefinitely away from the viewer, eventually indistinguishable from the horizon.
The man’s position (with his back to the viewer) adds to the mystery of the painting. His emotions and facial expressions remain something purely created by our own imagination. We can see he wears a dark jewel-green coat to protect against the mountain wind. His stance suggests confidence and physicality, yet there’s an indisputable melancholy to the piece.
Today, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog exemplifies the Romantic movement as a whole. The Romantic artists prioritized exploring emotional responses over direct representation. Indeed, Caspar David Friedrich’s ostensibly “realistic” scene is actually an amalgamation of components.
Scholars identify geology from the Elbe Sandstone Mountains stretching across Saxony and Bohemia. Friedrich often sketched “en plein air” but then rearranged his drawings back in the studio. Only once he was happy with the overall composition did he begin to paint.
Identifiable features include the Zirkelstein (a striking 40 meter sandstone table hill in Saxony) and the heavily weathered Kaiserkrone on which the man stands. Along with the Zirkelstein, this table hill rises from the low-lying Schöna valley. It is this particular geography that explains the intensely foggy scene. The mountains in the background are either the Kaltenberg or the Rosenberg peaks, although debates rage as to their exact geographic identity.
Romantic landscape painting particularly explored man’s relationship with nature and our ongoing conflict with the natural world (and ourselves). It was partly a reaction to the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, and followed the Age of Enlightenment.
In an age of rapidly expanding cities, production lines and gray factories, the Romantics were revolutionary in their rejection of capitalist logic. Their work also firmly rejected the previous neoclassical rules of strict compositional harmony and balance.
Subjectivity and individuality were the watchwords of the Romantics. Evidenced throughout practically all Caspar David Friedrich artworks, these ideas fundamentally inspired the artist. Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is particularly representative however, seen as an icon of philosophical and existential self-reflection. Akin to Socrates’ famous maxim “know thyself”, critics praise the painting for its intense contemplative nature.
Speaking of his art, Friedrich said an artist should paint “what he sees inside himself”. For Friedrich, this was of equal importance to figurative representation. Modern art historians (such as Christopher John Murray) agree with this interpretation. Murray notes how Caspar David Friedrich paintings all push our “gaze” towards their “metaphysical dimension”.
As well as its influence on the art world, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog has shaped modern conceptions of travel, exploration and mountain-climbing. It promotes ideals of lone visionaries and explorers, boldly treading new paths and ideas. Indeed, the idea that standing at the peak of a mountain was anything to be celebrated was a revolutionary concept in itself. Up until this point, the climber-hero ideal simply hadn’t existed.
The painting currently hangs in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, an art museum in Hamburg, Germany.
Caspar David Friedrich was a 19th century German landscape painter in the romantic tradition and considered to be the most important German painter of the time. He was born into a large and poor family on the Baltic coast and went to study in Copenhagen at the Academy of Art, having impressed his early tutors in his hometown of Greifswald. He moved to Dresden in 1798 and began to paint landscapes after frequent trips to the Baltic coast and the landscape of Northern Germany. He was elected a member of the Berlin Academy in 1810 following the purchase of two of his paintings by the Prussian Crown Prince. He married in 1818 and had three children. His paintings were also popular with the Russian nobility and many of his works were taken to hang in royal palaces in St Petersburg. At the end of his life, Friedrich's popularity was in serious decline and he died in near poverty, with his work all but forgotten until his rediscovery some 60 years later by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, and then the Symbolists, German painter Max Ernst, then the other Surrealists including Rene Magritte who praised work by Friedrich. Even the famous color field painter Mark Rothko has credited Friedrich as being an inspiration, with "The Monk by the Sea" having inspired Rothko's "Light, Earth and Blue".
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