FRIEDRICH, Caspar David
(b. 1774, Greifswald, d. 1840, Dresden)

Winter Landscape

Oil on canvas, 32 x 45 cm
National Gallery, London

One of the leading artists of the German Romantic movement, born in the small Baltic seaport of Greifswald and trained at the Academy in Copenhagen, Friedrich specialised in landscape painting. His aim was not, as he wrote, 'the faithful representation of air, water, rocks and trees...but the reflection of [the artist's] soul and emotion in these objects'. Later, using landscape to convey subjective feelings, he also invested it with symbolism. Natural elements such as mountains, sea, trees, the seasons of the year and the times of day, often acquired religious significance.

Winter Landscape was originally exhibited by Friedrich in 1811 in Weimar with another winter scene, now in the museum in Schwerin. In the bleak Schwerin picture, a tiny figure on crutches stares out across a snow-covered plain. He is surrounded by the gnarled trunks of dead or dying oaks, and stumps of felled trees stretch away into the distance. But the uncompromising desolation of this image is countered by its companion now in London. Here the same cripple has abandoned his crutches. He leans against a sturdy rock, raising his hands in prayer before a crucifix gleaming against the vigorous evergreen branches of young fir trees. On the horizon the facade and spires of a Gothic church, whose silhouette echoes that of the firs, rise like a vision out of a bank of mist. Shoots of grass push through the snow, and the sky is streaked with the glow of dawn. The mortal despair in the first painting is here transformed into the hope of resurrection, the salvation vouchsafed through Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

Friedrich was not the only one of his countrymen in this period to draw an analogy between 'native German' Gothic church architecture and the natural growth of forest trees, and the imagery here almost certainly reflects his sympathies with the patriotic and democratic movements of the day as well as his religious faith.

Winter Landscape was painted with surprisingly few pigments, suggesting that Friedrich was less interested in colour than in smoothly graduated tones. He achieved the striking effect of shimmering, transparent haze by careful stippling with the point of the brush, using a blue pigment - smalt - which is transparent in an oil medium.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 37 minutes):
Schubert: Songs, transcripted for piano by Franz Liszt