Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer) by Casper David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), c.1817, Oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle, HK-5161, bpk Bildagentur / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY

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Contemplating God’s Creation

A man seen from behind contemplates mountain scenery materializing from the receding mist. It is early in the day and the wanderer must have set out before sunrise to reach the elevated viewpoint on top of a mountain. Like him, the viewer is invited to admire this awe-inspiring scene.

This icon of German Romanticism was composed by Caspar David Friedrich from various features of the natural landscape the artist had studied in Saxon Switzerland, an area not far from Dresden, where Friedrich lived for most of his life.

According to specialist Werner Busch (2014: 18) most of Friedrich’s paintings have a spiritual connotation. Protestantism combined with a pantheist outlook on the world have been described as the origins of his religion (Hoch 1990: 71). While in earlier landscapes Friedrich often included a cross to allude to the ubiquity of God, later compositions, like the Wanderer, express it in the evocative, well-balanced sequence of mountain ranges that seem to lose themselves in eternity. The work helps us picture what it might mean for the ‘words’ of the heavens to reach ‘to the end of the world’ (Psalm 19:4). In a way that resonates with the ideas of German Romantics Ludwig Tieck and Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder—and with Psalm 19:1–4—Friedrich combines elements studied en plein air that he feels elevate the mind. Nature is the language God uses to make himself understood by humanity (Liebenwein-Krämer 1977: 4).

His compositions are structured according to geometric shapes that in their abstractness and perfection have become symbolic of God for many Romantics (Busch 2012: 298). Geometry as well as truth to nature are Friedrich’s tools to express his feelings at the sight of God’s creation, which to him is the principle of art. As nature shows forth God’s presence, Friedrich sees the artist as a mediator between his creation and humankind, able to convey the essence of the visible world that cannot be expressed in words (Hoch 1987: 60).

 

References

Busch, Werner. 2012. ‘Schleiermacher als Inspiration für Caspar David Friedrich’, in Religion als Bild—Bild als Religion, ed. by Christoph Dohmen and Christoph Wagner (Schneller & Steiner), pp. 287–304

————. 2014. ‘Friedrich und Dahl: Thematische Verwandtschaften und bildnerische Differenzen’ in Dahl und Friedrich: romantische Landschaften, ed. by Petra Kuhlmann-Hodick et al (Dresden: Sandstein-Verlag), pp. 16–23

Hoch, Karl-Ludwig. 1987. Caspar David Friedrich in Böhmen: Bergsymbolik in der romantischen Malerei (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer)

————. 1990. ‘Zur Ikonographie des Kreuzes bei C. D. Friedrich’, in Caspar David Friedrich: Winterlandschaften, ed. by Kurt Wettengl (Heidelberg: Braus), pp. 71–74

Liebenwein-Krämer, Renate. 1977. Säkularisierung und Sakralisierung. Studien zum Bedeutungswandel christlicher Bildformen in der Kunst des 19. Jahrhunderts (PhD diss. Frankfurt am Main)