Guest of Honor: Three Masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich

Detail of Moonrise over the Sea on view in Guest of Honor: Three Masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich

Guest of Honor: Three Masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich

December 5, 1998 to January 17, 1999

The Kimbell Art Museum displayed three masterworks by the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840): Mountain Landscape with Rainbow (c. 1810), on loan from the Museum Folkwang in Essen, along with Moonrise over the Sea (1822) and its companion-piece, Village Landscape in the Morning Light (1822), both from the National Gallery, Berlin.

Presented together with A Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds (c. 1835), the first painting by Friedrich to enter any North American museum collection when it was acquired by the Kimbell in 1984, these paintings provided an extremely rare opportunity to experience some of the great Romantic icons by the leading visual artist of the Germanic world during the era of Beethoven, Schubert, and Goethe.

Friedrich’s precise renditions of silent, prayerful encounters with trees, mountains, clouds, and luminous skies reminded some visitors of slightly later American so-called Luminist masters, such as Fitz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade, works by whom are highlights of the Amon Carter Museum that neighbors the Kimbell. The parallels are a reflection of all these painters’ familiarity with the meditative themes and spiritual symbols used by such widely read early-19th-century nature poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Friedrich, who outlived the Romantic zeitgeist epitomized by his art, became a largely forgotten figure throughout the second half of the 19th century, but by around 1900 he began to achieve cult status in Germany, where nearly all of his paintings remain today. It was at about this time that Friedrich’s images inspired Symbolist works by modern masters such as Edvard Munch, obsessed with humanity’s inescapable primal ties to nature.

Only since around 1970 has Friedrich’s rightful place in the early history of modern painting been widely recognized, thanks to several major exhibitions. In recent years paintings by Friedrich have at last been added to such collections as the Musée du Louvre, the National Gallery, London, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and many of his unforgettable images have been reproduced as cover illustrations for recordings and books.

Friedrich was born and grew up in Greifswald, on the Baltic Sea, and by age 16 was pursuing art studies, first at the University of Griefswald and then at the Copenhagen Art Academy. In 1798 he settled in Dresden, at that time the capital city of Saxony and a leading Germanic cultural center. Around 1804 he began to exhibit deeply Romantic landscape images, which immediately captured the attention of the great writer Goethe; such works were soon in demand with noble collectors who appreciated them as heralds of a modern German art disengaged from the values of Enlightenment French culture.

Indeed, Friedrich’s art career in Dresden took shape in reaction to French military expansion. Starting in 1799 with Napoleon’s creation of a military dictatorship in France, all eastern European states entered a tumultuous period that would only culminate at Waterloo in 1814. After the French defeated the Prussian army, Saxony joined Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine, and, as the Grand Army regrouped itself after its staggering defeat in Russia in 1812, Dresden became Napoleon’s center of military operations.

Like Beethoven’s most stirring symphonies, Friedrich’s art can only be understood within this extraordinary context. His effort to create a palpably non-French style and his pessimistic, even morbid obsession with salvation beyond this earthly life of carnage reflect before all else a life lived in a war-torn world.

By the time Friedrich began painting in oils in 1807, he had determined to put his strict realist style at the service of allegory. Mountain Landscape with Rainbow, for example, accurately portrays the mountains of Saxon Switzerland visible across a valley, but the painting’s meaning has clearly been expanded far beyond mere topographical description. Under a darkening sky, the distant mountain, its peak pointing upward like a symbol of salvation, recedes from view into shadowy silhouette, as if to suggest how earthly matters are brief passing illusions that disappear at the end of life’s journey.

The figure on the foreground promontory is a self-portrait of the artist resting after a hike through the wilderness to meditate upon this extraordinary transient spectacle. His hat removed, as if out of piety, Friedrich thus portrays himself during a moment of revelation, when God’s message is communicated from what he and his fellow Romantics venerated as the Book of Nature. Taken in its biblical sense, as God’s sign to Noah after the Deluge, the rainbow is the promise of a future of spiritual salvation.

But the rainbow, of course, has other allegorical implications: as the reflection of the light of the sun (to which an observer’s back must be turned), its colorful display can be understood to symbolize the limited capacity of human sight to perceive basic truths directly.

In Friedrich’s world, all earthly perceptions, if correctly observed by the spiritual as well as the bodily senses, are merely signs of invisible immutable truths.

“Close your bodily eye,” Friedrich later explained, “in order that you may see your picture first with the eye of your inner spirit. Then bring that which you have seen in darkness into the light of day so that it may react on others from the outside inwards.”

Amounting to something like a pictorial counterpart to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1801), Friedrich’s melancholy Moonrise over the Sea counts among the foremost icons of the Age of Romanticism. While this painting represents in subtle detail the quiet shadowy beauty of a rocky beach at low tide with night coming on, the foremost theme is the act of looking, embodied by three figures facing away towards the distance, as if in yearning.

Instead of observing sunlight reflected in the form of a rainbow, these figures perceive sunlight reflected from the earth’s satellite. Indeed, with consideration for the role of the moon overall in Friedrich’s works, scholars have concluded that it symbolized the light of Christ reflecting onto earth the divine solar light of God the Father. Stranded on a large rock symbolic of their faith, these elegantly groomed city folks watch two sailing ships approaching the end of some voyage and dropping sail.

Their backs turned, the identities of the figures would hardly seem to matter, but it is worth mentioning that Caroline Bommer (the young woman Friedrich married in 1818), as she was portrayed from the back in other works by Friedrich during these years, may have served as a model. If so, the other figures are possibly Friedrich himself and the recently widowed Marie Helene Kögelgen, whose painter husband, Gerhard von Kögelgen, Friedrich’s closest friend, was murdered by a soldier-turned-highwayman in 1820.

Whether or not Moonrise over the Sea belongs to the category of Romantic “friendship” pictures, it was, like many of Friedrich’s most important works, developed as a pendant to another painting of identical dimensions, Village Landscape in the Morning Light, also of 1822.

Friedrich’s paintings conceived as pairs or groups always represent contrasting times of day or seasons of the year; here he bolstered the juxtaposition of morning and evening with a contrast between an inland world rich with plant life and a barren seaward world. Nevertheless, compositionally Friedrich carefully balanced the two realms: the horizon is at the same level in both paintings, and in both a low-hanging cloud hovers above the foreground.

In Village Landscape in the Morning Light this low gray cloud takes the form of an uninterrupted rectangular zone from one side of the painting to the other and casts a cool shadow upon the meadow. Beyond the cloud’s shadow, the bright middle ground includes a small sparkling river (presumably making its way to the coast in the pendant painting) and, in the distance at the foot of the mountains, a little town dominated by a church with a tall steeple. Although the presence of a shepherd and a flock of sheep grazing near a pool in the foreground seems to allude to the twenty-third psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd . . .”), the painting’s major protagonist is the oak tree, whose storm-blasted top seems to point heavenwards like the distant church steeple and even to scrape against the cloud above. Throughout Friedrich’s landscape paintings the oak is always intended to evoke the landscape’s proud and enduring Teutonic past that has outlived human generations.

As soon as these two poetically and symbolically charged masterworks were finished, Friedrich sold them to Konsul Heinrich Wagener, a Berlin merchant, who bequeathed his collection of 262 contemporary Germanic paintings to the King of Prussia as the foundation collection for Germany’s National Gallery, which opened to the public in 1876.

Caption: Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea (detail), 1822, oil on canvas. National Gallery, Berlin