Why Caspar David Friedrich’s Painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) Is a Romantic Masterpiece, Evoking the Power of the Sublime

When Cas­par David Friedrich com­plet­ed Der Wan­der­er über dem Nebelmeer, or Wan­der­er Above the Sea of Fog, in 1818, it “was not well received.” So says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in his new Great Art Explained video above, which focus­es on Friedrich’s most famous paint­ing. In the artist’s life­time, the Wan­der­er in fact “marked the grad­ual decline of Friedrich’s for­tunes.” He with­drew from soci­ety, and in 1835, “he suf­fered a stroke that left the left side of his body effec­tive­ly par­a­lyzed, effec­tive­ly end­ing his career.” How, over the cen­turies since, did this once-ill-fat­ed paint­ing become so icon­ic that many of us now see it ref­er­enced every few weeks?

Friedrich had known pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal scorn before. His first major com­mis­sion, paint­ed in 1808, was “an altar­piece which shows a cross in pro­file at the top of a moun­tain, alone and sur­round­ed by pine trees. Hard for us to under­stand now, but it caused a huge scan­dal.” This owed in part to the lack of tra­di­tion­al per­spec­tive in its com­po­si­tion, which pre­saged the feel­ing of bound­less­ness — over­laid with “rolling mists and fogs” — that would char­ac­ter­ize his lat­er work. But more to the point, “land­scape had nev­er been con­sid­ered a suit­able genre for overt­ly reli­gious themes. And of course, nor­mal­ly the cru­ci­fix­ion is shown as a human nar­ra­tive pop­u­lat­ed by human fig­ures, not Christ dying alone.”

It’s fair to say that Friedrich did not do things nor­mal­ly, both philo­soph­i­cal­ly — break­ing away, with his fel­low Roman­ti­cists, from the mech­a­nis­tic Enlight­en­ment con­sen­sus about the world — and aes­thet­i­cal­ly. The Wan­der­er (fur­ther ana­lyzed in the Nerd­writer video just below) presents a Weltan­schau­ung in which “land­scape was a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a divine world order, and man was an indi­vid­ual who watch­es, con­tem­plates, and feels much more than he cal­cu­lates and thinks.” To achieve his desired effect, Friedrich assem­bles an imag­ined vista out of var­i­ous ele­ments seen around Dres­den, pre­sent­ing it in a man­ner that com­bines char­ac­ter­is­tics of both land­scapes and por­traits to “cre­ate a pow­er­ful sense of space” while direct­ing our atten­tion to the lone uniden­ti­fied fig­ure right in the cen­ter.

The “curi­ous com­bi­na­tion of lone­li­ness and empow­er­ment” that results is key to under­stand­ing not just the pri­or­i­ties of the Roman­tics, but the very nature of the aes­thet­ic sub­lime they rev­er­ent­ly expressed. To be sub­lime is not just to be beau­ti­ful or plea­sur­able, but also to exude a kind of intim­i­dat­ing, even fear­some vast­ness; how it feels to enter the pres­ence of the sub­lime can nev­er be ful­ly repli­cat­ed, let alone explained, but as Friedrich demon­strates, it can effec­tive­ly be evoked. Hence, as Payne points out, the ten­den­cy of cur­rent media like movie posters to crib from the Wan­der­er, in ser­vice of the likes of Dunkirk, Obliv­ion, Into Dark­ness, and After Earth. Deter­min­ing whether those pic­tures live up to the ambi­tions evi­dent in Friedrich’s artis­tic lega­cy is an exer­cise left to the read­er.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to the Paint­ing of Cas­par David Friedrich, Roman­ti­cism & the Sub­lime

The Oth­er­world­ly Art of William Blake: An Intro­duc­tion to the Vision­ary Poet and Painter

How the Avant-Garde Art of Gus­tav Klimt Got Per­verse­ly Appro­pri­at­ed by the Nazis

Bri­an Eno on Cre­at­ing Music and Art As Imag­i­nary Land­scapes (1989)

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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