Saturday, 6 September 2014

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Caspar David Friedrich (Greifswald, Germany, 5th September 1774 – Dresden, Germany, 7th May 1840)

In 1774, an artist was born in Germany who was to enjoy both great success and devastating failures, dying a lonely death in obscurity. Caspar David Friedrich's reputation was further damaged by an association with the Nazi regime but in more recent decades he has been welcomed back into the fold of art history, regarded once more as an icon of German art for his depictions of the natural world, with humans often playing a minor role. I first encountered Friedrich's remarkable work, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, several years ago quite by accident; it is a painting that has never dimmed in my memory or esteem and it is my pleasure to feature it here today.



Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

Painted in 1818 in oils and going by the German title of Der Wanderer ├╝ber dem Nebelmeer, the painting shows a man standing atop a precipice, looking out over a fog-shrouded landscape of rocky peaks. The fog swirls into the distance, with no other sign of life beyond the figure with the walking stick who stands centre stage.


Although the exact geography of the painting does not exist, it is a composite landscape made up of images based on the Elbe Sandstone Mountains (Elbsandsteingebirge), though Friedrich has positioned them to suit the composition rather than to accurately reflect the true landscape. The wanderer himself is unknown to us and we cannot see his expression so cannot know if he is elated to have climbed above the clouds or perhaps awestruck as he looks out over the landscape; what drove him to make the ascent we cannot know, it is a painting that might start a thousand stories.

It has been suggested that the man in the portrait might be Friedrich himself but others believe it is a posthumous depiction of Colonel Friedrich Gotthard von Brincken. The green coat is certainly suggestive of the uniform of von Brinken's regiment and the Colonel died five years prior to the painting's completion, lending an additional poignancy, an almost unknown solider quality to the unknown man who might, in truth, represent many, as opposed to one.


The wanderer might be interpreted as being king of all he surveys yet to me, the landscape serves only to show his insignificance in this landscape. He is transient, mortal and finite in against a backdrop that might have exiasted for a million years and might exist for a million more. 


2 comments:

  1. It is a story. What is the man thinking? Why is he there? Where will he be next? He is there for a reason, one which has yet to be obvious to him? Yes, this could be the artist’s thought of himself, whether he realizes it or not. But what is it to us, the viewer? “The painting is not finished until the viewer walks away.”

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  2. Thank you for your thought-provoking comment. I find myself returning more and more to this painting and its stories.

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