Caspar David Friedrich, Landschaft mit Gebirgssee am Morgen
19th Century European Paintings

Caspar David Friedrich's Vision of the Sublime

By Claude Piening
On 12 December in London, Sotheby’s will offer two landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich, each work a distillation of the artist’s search for deeper meaning within the appearance of nature.

W hat is it about Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes that is so mesmerising and universally captivating? Standing beneath his monumental oil Der Watzmann – quite literally the pinnacle of Northern Romanticism – in one of my favourite rooms in Europe, the inner sanctum of German Romantic art that is the Friedrich gallery at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, I try to articulate in my mind some answers to this question.

The Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin
the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin

Is it Friedrich’s marvellous and inimitable photographic clarity of execution? The timeless vistas that liberate us from our cluttered, fast-paced, social-media-driven world to afford us a moment of precious ‘me’ time? Do his panoramas appeal to our collective consciousness of the fragile beauty of nature? Or is it that they present us with an existential reality check? Towering mountains; a lone monk wandering by the sea shore; a ruined monastery kept company only by ancient gnarled oaks; an abandoned forester’s hut all but buried in the snow. Are these reminders of our place in the world and of the fleetingness of our time on earth, against the backdrop of something bigger or, as Friedrich would have us believe, of a divine continuum, symbolised by nature? Perhaps the answer to my original question is all of the above.

Caspar David Friedrich, Landschaft mit Gebirgssee am Morgen (Landscape with Mountain Lake, Morning). Estimate £2,000,000-3,000,000.

Which brings me to the two landscapes in our upcoming sale, which pick up on many of these themes. Like Der Watzmann, the larger of our works is an Alpine view of tremendous depth and recession framed in the distance by the majesty of ancient mountains. In the foreground, a tiny figure contemplates the vastness and his place in the world, rather like the wanderer in Friedrich’s iconic Wanderer over the Sea of Fog (Kunsthalle, Hamburg). A beam of light like that of a searchlight strikes the surface of the lake (or is it a sea of mist?), like a divine intervention or a harbinger of the hope and salvation that awaits us beyond mortal life on the near shore.

Caspar David Friedrich, Sonnenblick im Riesengebirge (Sunburst in the Giant Mountains). Estimate £500,000-700,000.

The smaller oil is a view of the Riesengebirge, or Giant Mountains, in Bohemia, in which human presence is only hinted at by a mountain hut high on the ridge. Here, it is the tall fir trees that take on anthropomorphic qualities, rooted in the present but silhouetted by the sunlit upland planes representing the eternal life beyond. Will these two oils, like those in the Alte Nationalgalerie, too one day grace the walls of a great museum, to be pondered and enjoyed by succeeding generations? Given their beauty and rarity, they certainly deserve to.

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