Caspar David Friedrich

My friend Stapleton Kearns is doing a series of blog posts on one of the key landscape painters who influenced both of us, the British artist John Constable (1776-1837). Born nearly at the same time was the other giant of 19th century British landscape, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). There's another painter who was a huge inspiration to me when I was just starting out as a landscapist, the German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Funny how all three came into the world so close to each other.

Friedrich (by the way, my middle name is Frederick, does that count for any extra art points?) excelled at creating some of the moodiest landscapes ever painted. By the Sea above poses three women on a boulder watching the voyage of what seem like ghost ships. One of the engines of this painting's expressiveness is how it contrasts a cool light on the far horizon against a glowing subtle warmth of what I take to be the rising moon. Notice how the figures in the foreground are grouped close together to tightly frame that little piece of empty space between them. The women are imagined as pyramid-like silhouettes. Their diagonally leaning sides contrast against the purely vertical pull of the ships' masts. 

Many commentators point to a wistfulness, longing, and melancholy in Friedrich's work and that is there. But he is a rich enough painter to have addditional layers of meaning too. One of the things he does very well is to force the viewer to look up into the sky in each of his paintings. In all four of the oils I've posted here notice how he pulls you up into his skies, as if he wanted to lift your spirit.

This winter scene of a ruined cathedral is a case in point. Again he elegantly handles the contrast of a cool blue grey lower sky played off against a warmer color in the heavens at the top. 

The paintings have a delicious crispness of forms- look at the sharp spindly branches of the trees combined with the most delicate and palpable atmosphere. Friedrich makes you feel the misty air as it moves in and wraps around the forms in the distance.

Below is his painting Riesengebirge, and again you feel the atmosphere gently cooling off the warm colors of the foreground and softly lightening up the darks as one travels into the far distance.

For me there's an unmatched sense of mystery to Friedrich's paintings. He makes you feel the vastness of the earth and the nearly limitless space of the heavens. I find these paintings are the emotional responses by a man who had a deeply romantic heart. 

Being a painter isn't an easy job. Artists must spend a lot of time in isolation and it can be lonely. Often to get a painting to move forward involves considerable struggle. Something that has helped me keep wind in my sails over  decades of painting is knowing I am part of a long and honorable tradition of landscape art. Each generation sees reality a little differently, and so our task as lanscape painters today is a little different than was Friedrich's or Constable's. But those painters from our past give us their wonderful broad shoulders to stand on as we paint how we are seeing the world.


  1. I love that ruined cathedral, what a great piece!

  2. I am very attracted to the vastness and expanses depicted in his work - I think it says something about his spiritual connection to the landscape...

  3. Hi Philip,

    Last month you posted a piece about Elizabeth Sparhawk Jones. I was very intriqued and the book "The Artist who Lived Twice" went on my Christmas list. I did get the book (along with books on Marsden Hartley, Guy Pene De Bois and George Bellows). I started reading about Sparhawk Jones and couldn't put it down. I felt a great deal of empathy with the subject and was rather torn. Her life seemed so tragic on one hand, but satisfying on the other. I read with great interest about her friendship with Marsden Hartley. I then picked up the Hartley book (Marsden Hartley, Race Region and Nation) and thumbed though it. I looked at the indexes and Sparhawk Jones is not listed at all. Many artists are there but her name is curiously absent. Since it is a biography and it happens to focus on the time period when he and Sparhawk Jones had a close friendship, I am wondering why she is omitted. In any event, I enjoyed the read, so thanks for posting about it.

    Linda Pochesci

  4. Stape- yes it is amazing. I showed it to my wife, who'd never seen it before, and she literally gasped in delight.

  5. Hi Linda, glad you enjoyed the book on Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. I think what's so interesting about her was she was a well-known rising star in the art world in her early 20's, and then all but disappeared from everyone's memory once her depression hit. It's a very sad story. I suspect the author of the Marsden Hartley biography just didn't know who Sparhawk-Jones was when references to her came up so her name was omitted from that book. Fortunately as sometimes happens, ESJ's depression finally lifted after many years and she was able to return to painting and to a more active engagement with the world. It's a nasty illness.

    It is great that Barbara Lehman Smith was able to do the original research that led to her new book on Sparhawk-Jones. It's helping to revive interest in this fascinating and tragic painter.

  6. Mary, having struggled many many times to make empty space and vastness feel powerful in my own paintings, I appreciate how good Friedrich was at doing exactly that. Sounds like you do too.


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