Caspar David Friedrich’s Landscape with Mountain Lake, Morning is an exemplary image of landscape painting of the Romantic era, expressing mood and meaning through landscape. A lone wanderer in a frock coat, dwarfed by the expanse of the lake and the mountains beyond, pauses for a moment and, leaning on his stick, takes in the vista. His lonely silhouette is counterbalanced by three upright firs, his only other company three cattle on the gently undulating pastureland.
The rest of the painting is devoid of human presence, save for the suggestion of it in the form of a palace-like building on the far shore. As so often in Friedrich's work, the foreground - tangible, highly detailed, and close to the picture plane - is detached from the much more distant mountains by a body of water. The physical and metaphysical realms are separated, with no clear means of bridging the two. Painted circa 1823-35, the present work references themes and details from earlier works, and can thus be seen as the culmination of the artist’s developing thoughts on, and ambitions for, an Alpine landscape.
Art historian Eduard Trautscholdt has suggested the subject could be the Königssee in the Bavarian Alps, while Helmut Börsch-Supan in his catalogue raisonné of Friedrich’s oeuvre points to the similarities between the mountain range and the Eiger and Mönch peaks in the Bernese Alps, with the addition of a lake entirely of Friedrich’s imagination. Since Friedrich himself never visited the Alps, he would have relied on other painters’ sketches one way or the other. And in any case, the exact reproduction of a Swiss Alpine view was never his objective in the first place, just as he painted one of his most famous works, the Eismeer (Sea of Ice) of 1823/24 (Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle), without ever having travelled further north than Copenhagen. Even when Friedrich titled paintings after specific views, as in his famous Der Watzmann (The Watzmann Mountain), of 1824/25, (Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie), or Ruine im Riesengebirge (Ruin in the Giant Mountains), 1830/34, (Greifswald, Pommersches Landesmuseum), he rarely delivered a topographically realistic view of the subject. Der Watzmann, for example, despite its title, is an invented view, for which Friedrich combined Alpine elements with those of his adopted home – the mountainous area around Dresden called the Sächsische Schweiz or ‘Saxon Switzerland’ – while the ruin in Ruine im Riesengebirge is none other than the monastery of Eldena transposed from the flatlands of Friedrich’s native Greifswald in Pomerania into the mountains of Bohemia.
While Friedrich was an exacting student of the landscape, and though his paintings give the impression of the greatest appearance of actuality, his landscapes were, in fact, constructs of his own design. Friedrich's mannerism, like that of his contemporary Turner, was the outcome of a search for deeper meaning (for Friedrich a religious one) within the appearance of nature. But where Turner superimposed dramatic narratives on to landscape, and the revivalist German Nazarene painters used the campagna as the backdrop for pious Biblical scenes, Friedrich - as William Vaughan remarks in the catalogue of the Tate Gallery's 1972 Friedrich retrospective - approached landscape painting with quiet introspection, building meaning out of the spatial structure itself. In the present work, a dramatic sense of depth is achieved by three distinct planes: the meadow with trees, figure and animals in the foreground, in which every blade of grass and field flower is observed in minute detail; the mirror-like surface of the lake below, and the majestic framing mountains, receding into a purple mist in the background. Each band is distinguished through differences in atmospheric rendering, to intimate its symbolic meaning: the grass, flowers, firs, cattle, and the wandering figure symbolising the transience of life; the lake death; the mountains (and particularly the cosmic ray of light entering from the valley to the left) salvation and the life eternal. At the same time, the viewer is invited into a Romantic meditation on the landscape's scale at both micro and macro levels - from the smallest blade of grass to the most colossal mountain. The same pictorial construction and symbolism is found time and again in Friedrich's oeuvre (fig. 1).
'A painting must stand as a painting, made by human hand; not seek to disguise itself as Nature.'
Caspar David Friedrich
Friedrich’s aesthetic must be seen in the context of his time and his own ascetic Protestant upbringing. The idea of divine creation manifesting itself in nature – of nature as a universal totality - was one being popularised by writers and critics like Tieck, Novalis, and the Schlegel brothers, themselves inspired by Kant and Schiller. For them, this response to nature was not just a passive appreciation but a creative action by which the individual could bring his own soul into communication with the universal spirit. Friedrich, too, believed that it was through the expression of the internal vision by external means that the artist could achieve a truly spiritual communication. Transcribing his inner vision using landscape imagery and a vocabulary of symbols whose meaning was suggested or extended through subtle spatial and tonal relationships was borne out by his painting method. Carus recalls how he would imagine his vision with closed eyes, then sketch the vision immediately on to bare canvas, work it up with pen and ink, before starting the underpainting.
'Close your physical eye, so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring what you saw in the dark into the light, so that it may have an effect on others, shining inwards from outside.'
Caspar David Friedrich
If, as Trautscholdt suggests, the present work is the painting exhibited as Eine Gebirgsgegend mit einigen Tannen am Wasser stehend (Mountainous Terrain with Firs by the Water) at the 1823 Berliner Akademieausstellung, this would date it to the time Friedrich painted his only two other Alpine landscapes – Der Watzmann and Hochgebirge (Schweizer Landschaft) (Mountainous Swiss Landscape), both of 1823/24, and both depicting awe-inspiring mountains that seem impossible to conquer. At that time, Friedrich shared a house with his friend, the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, and was close to the Dresden Romantic painter Carl Gustav Carus, and both the subject and palette of greens, purples and greys in the present work no doubt owe something to that relationship. Both Dahl and Carus travelled to Italy across the Alps and may have supplied Friedrich with sketches of views and inspiration. In fact, Dahl first went on an extended journey south in 1820/21, just before co-habiting with Friedrich. Upon his return, he executed several Tyrolean views with compositions not unlike Friedrich’s and there can be no doubt that Friedrich would have seen these.
While the influence of Dahl and Carus is clearly discernible, the exact dating of the work – and whether it was in fact the painting shown in 1823 - remains open to debate, however. On stylistic grounds, particularly in the execution of the fir tree on the right and the figure, Helmut Börsch-Supan, in a letter of July 2017, has suggested that Friedrich may have completed the picture as late as the early 1830s, or at least added these details to it around that time. Regardless of the exact completion date, the painting abounds with references to Friedrich’s life work, and it is tempting to see the lone figure, in frock coat and top hat, as the artist himself (and certainly a version in microcosm of the frock-coated Rückenfigur in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818, Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, fig. 2). The figure of a wanderer leading the viewer into the mood of the painting is certainly one of Friedrich’s trademarks, epitomised by Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wander Above the Sea of Fog) (Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle) (fig. 2) or by the lone monk in Der Mönch am Meer (Monk by the Sea) (1809, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie). The figure in the present work relates to a pencil drawing Friedrich made in September 1824, part of the so-called Fischer Skizzenbuch, and titled Studie eines Mannes mit Hund (Oslo, National Gallery, fig. 3). The figure is also reprised in the oil, Ruin in the Riesengebirge, executed at a similar date to the present work.
The fir tree is one of the pictorial attributes most associated with Friedrich, and appears, with symbolic meaning, in many of his most famous paintings including Ausblick in das Elbtal (View over the Elbe Valley) (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Dresden, fig. 4). Much rarer in Friedrich’s paintings are cows. Like the wanderer, the three Holsteins are not native to the mountainous landscape, and like their human companion seem in awe of the view. The pair of cows in the centre can be traced exactly to Friedrich’s Kleines Mannheimer Skizzenbuch, in which he sketched these animals as early as October 1801 (Schweinfurt, Museum Georg Schäfer) (fig. 5). While he has switched their positions, their respective outlines and positions are virtually identical to those in the sketchbook, in which he also observed a cow similar to the black one on the right. The band of mist over the lake harks back to the roof of cloud in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog or the fog in Der Morgen (Morning) (Hanover, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum). Thus old and new elements are brought together, to create this fantastical view, which as such is a masterful creation of his own imagination.
Friedrich began his artistic training in 1790-94 under a local Greifswald artist Quistorp, at whose advice he enrolled at the Copenhagen Academy, at that time the leading Academy of Northern Europe and attended by many German artists including Wilhelm Otto Runge (lots 2 & 3). Here, he studied under Christian Lorentsen and Jens Juel, before transferring to the Dresden Academy in 1798. The move was a common one among young northern artists at the time, and a route also followed by Runge, Kersting, Dahl, and Fearnley. In Dresden he became acquainted with the work of Claude and Ruysdael at the Picture Gallery, but from an early stage he developed his own distinctive style and manner of building up his compositions: the use of layered bands that characterises so many of his paintings from Monk by the Sea can perhaps be traced back to the views of his childhood of the sea against the white cliffs along the Pomeranian coast. It is perhaps telling that he should introduce to this landlocked Alpine landscape, painted in Dresden, a body of water connecting him to his homeland by the sea.
Friedrich's Posthumous Reputation
Admired by Goethe and patronised by the Prussian monarchy, the Grand Duke of Weimar, and in Russia by the future Czar Nicholas I and poet Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky, Friedrich’s reputation seemed secure. However, ultimately he was unable to stem the tide of naturalists, medievalists, and Roman landscape painters that grew around him in his later years. As Boris I. Asvarishch puts it: 'compared to [Dusseldorf school] paintings of unambiguous and easily understood literary subjects, Friedrich's works began to seem overly abstract, overburdened with a frightening mysticism that was ill-suited to the decor of a bourgeois interior'. His large landscapes of the 1820s and 1830s, while admired by a few, were fast becoming out of fashion, and following his death in 1840 and for the remainder of the nineteenth century, his art was remembered no more than occasionally as a curiosity. It was not until the 1890s that his aesthetic began to re-emerge. His imagery resonated strongly with the emerging Symbolist painters including Munch and Hodler, albeit this later generation of painters’ art was driven by more complex and confusing spiritual tensions.
Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century Friedrich's art remained largely visible in German and Russian institutions only. In 1984, the Kimbell Art Museum became the first public collection outside of Europe to acquire an oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich (Hochgebirgsgipfel mit treibenden Wolken (Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds)). Acquisitions followed at the London National Gallery in 1987 (Winterlandschaft mit Kirche (Winter Landscape)), the Getty Museum, Los Angeles in 1993 (Spaziergang in der Abenddämmerung (A Walk at Dusk)), The Louvre and the Met in 2000 (Küste bei Mondschein (Seashore by Moonlight) and Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes (Two Men Contemplating the Moon) respectively), and more recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 2004 (Eine Nordische Frühlingslandschaft (Northern Landscape, Spring)). Today more perhaps than at any time since Friedrich’s death, his sublime and timeless landscapes are being appreciated by artists and the public alike.
This work has been requested on loan for the 2020–21 exhibition Caspar David Friedrich and the Düsseldorfer Malerschule at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf and the Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
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