Landscape and the Sublime: The Art of Caspar David Friedrich

Having been through a recent bout of artistic doldrums, I began asking myself “Why landscapes?” I like landscape painting, but my art sessions were getting a bit dull. I painted mountains. I painted more mountains. I painted trees here and there. Another mountain, this one with a lake. Another lake, more trees.

Of course, I love painting skies and clouds, and maybe that’s one reason I’ve always been drawn to landscapes. Oh, but I love trees, as you know. I love lakes and rivers, too. Many hours have been spent hiking along forest trails, cutting my way through the brush to go sit on the banks of the mighty Missouri river, and yes, I’ve climbed the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona, and trudged up into the snowy Rockies in Colorado. And who can ever forget the sight of magnificent Mt. Ranier in Seattle?

I love nature, and this is what I want to paint. But as a beginning landscape artist, my works are simple, dull, and boring. Admitting the problem is always the first step in solving it. I know my landscapes lack interest. I don’t know how to create strong focal points or centers of interest. I have so much to learn!

And what better way to learn that to revisit the masters of landscape painting? Asher Durand, Claude Lorrain, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, Albert Bierstadt, Homer Martin, and many more would become my teachers, I decided. I wanted to study not only their works, but also to get into their hearts and their minds.

Why landscapes? Why were these men drawn to paint nature? What were their thoughts and feelings? What was each man’s intent as he put paint to his canvas?

My art research led me away from my familiar favorites to a landscape painter named Caspar David Friedrich. He was born in 1774 and is now considered perhaps the most significant German artist of his generation. I was fascinated in reading about him. I’m wondering now if I should have been an art scholar! I can read about the life, the work, and the philosophies of artists all day long and never grow tired of it.

But, back to Friedrich.

Why did he choose to paint landscapes? It was for more than a “beautiful view”. Friedrich wanted to capture elements of the sublime, that moment of “connection” that often happens when we contemplate the natural world, that inexpressible feeling of our own spiritual being, our awareness that we are but a part of something greater than our insignificant little selves.

Indeed, many of his works have an overtly religious theme, such as “The Cross in the Mountains”.


His landscapes seem to always possess a profound spirituality. We are to contemplate nature, his paintings tell us. It is there that we can find ourselves, there that we can learn the truth about life and death.

But first, the artist must find some truth within. Friedrich said:

“The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him. Otherwise, his pictures will be like those folding screens behind which one expects to find only the sick or the dead.”

As I continue my studies and read more about Friedrich and other brilliant landscape artists, I want to also delve deep inside of myself. I want to see what I hold within, and I want to explore the sense of the sublime.

Might I some day be able to bring those feelings into my paintings? I will strive to remember Friedrich’s advice to artists  to “close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards.”

Sadly, Friedrich’s life was one of loneliness and ultimate despair. Although he married and had a family, he suffered from episodes of depression, and art historians note thematic shifts in his work during these bleak periods with dark symbolism such as vultures, owls, graveyards, and ruins.

As the ideals of Romanticism faded, Friedrich came to be seen as an eccentric, melancholy man who was out of touch with the realities of the world. He lost his patrons, and lived as a recluse for many years.

In his sixties, he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. His vision remained strong, but he lost strength in his hands. Unable to work in oil, he turned to watercolor and sepia. It was at this time that he produced his “black painting”, “Seashore by Moonlight”.


At the time of his death in 1840, his artistic reputation had diminished greatly. His artwork had been acknowledged during his lifetime,and the close study of landscape and emphasis on spiritual elements was an accepted part of landscape painting, yet Friedrich’s works were viewed as too intimate and too personal to be fully understood. Soon, Caspar David Friedrich and his art were all but forgotten.

His work became controversial later, however, when in the 1930’s it was used to promote the Nazi ideology. His reputation as an artist suffered even more when a number of film directors — including Walt Disney — adopted many of his images for use in the fantasy and horror genres.

Gradually art critics and historians began viewing Friedrich’s works again, separating them from the political associations that had been attached and seeing them from the perspective of art history.

By the 1970’s he was again being exhibited in major galleries, and today his reputation is fully-rehabilitated and well-established. He is considered a national icon in his native Germany.

Friedrich once said:

“I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.

In a fitting tribute to Freidrich, art historian William Vaughan tells us Friedrich was, “a believer who struggled with doubt, a celebrator of beauty haunted by darkness. In the end, he transcends interpretation, reaching across cultures through the compelling appeal of his imagery. He has truly emerged as a butterfly — hopefully one that will never again disappear from our sight.”

I’m grateful that I discovered Friedrich’s works, and his beliefs about landscape and the sublime will remain with me each time I pick up a brush to paint what I see — both around me and within me.










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