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Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism

From The Objective Standard, Vo. 3, No. 1.

The romantic school of art, wrote Ayn Rand, “is concerned—in the words of Aristotle—not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.”1 In her esthetic writings, Ayn Rand elaborated on this idea relative to her own field, the novel. But she said little about how it applies to the visual arts; and, when asked, she commented, “I wouldn’t claim that the classifications I’ve defined for literature hold for the other realms of art. Someone would have to establish that.”2

In taking up this challenge, I can think of no better artist to analyze than the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840).

Although estheticians do not agree about what, fundamentally, makes a romantic artist, everybody agrees that Friedrich is one. The state of affairs is captured by art historian Joseph Koerner’s question: “What does it mean to say that Caspar David Friedrich is a quintessentially Romantic painter?”—and by his rather inadequate answer: “As evocation of the faraway and indistinct, as the evocation of an evocation, Romantic names that which is properly unnameable about the project of Romanticism.”3

Ayn Rand provided a more helpful approach. Romantic art, she wrote, “deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence.”4 And at its highest development, the concern of romantic literature “is not merely with values, but specifically with moral values and with the power of moral values in shaping human character.”5

Friedrich held similar views in regard to painting. “To many it is incomprehensible that art has to emerge from a person’s inner being,” he wrote, “that it has to do with one’s morality, one’s religion.” But so it does. “You should trade only in what you recognize to be true and beautiful, noble and good in your soul.”6

And indeed, Friedrich’s paintings typically deal (from his own perspective) with man’s noblest, most exalted moral values and abstractions.

Let us see how.

Wanderer above a Sea of Mist

A wanderer has climbed a mountain. Statuesque, he stands on the summit above a sea of mist. Rising above the mist, as he has done, is a row of rocks in the near distance, and, in the far distance, a pair of mountain peaks (to his left) and a large crag (to his right). The sky is covered with clouds, which let the sunlight through.

1. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774-1840) Wanderer above a Sea of Mist. ca. 1818. Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm. Inv. 5161. On permanent loan from the Foundation for the Promotion of the Hamburg Art Collections. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany Photo: Elke Walford Photo Credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY

1. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774-1840)
Wanderer above a Sea of Mist. ca. 1818. Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm. Inv. 5161. On permanent loan from the Foundation for the Promotion of the Hamburg Art Collections.
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
Photo: Elke Walford
Photo Credit: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY

Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, 1818 (fig. 1), is one of the most famous paintings of the early 19th century. Reproduced on the covers of many books about romanticism in art and intellectual history, Friedrich’s wanderer has become practically an iconic representation of the romantic spirit.

But what does this iconic image mean?

A standard explanation consists of noting that Friedrich was a Christian and that there are Christian symbols in his painting. For example, a mountain commonly symbolizes the meeting of heaven and earth; and sunlight (or any light) symbolizes God’s consciousness. Implicit in this symbolism is the Christian view that the world is split in opposing realms of matter and spirit, with God representing the higher, spiritual element.

This symbolic explanation is inadequate but not entirely wrong: The specifics of the painting support the idea that the wanderer is standing at the meeting place of a material earth and a spiritual heaven.

First, the statuesquely immobile wanderer seems a continuation of the summit on which he stands. The four blocky shapes of his body—his head, his torso and right arm, the skirt of his coat, and the posture of his legs—resemble the blocky boulders of the summit. The jagged gap between his right arm and side echoes the gap between two boulders on his right, and the shape and direction of his left foot echo the jutting rock beneath the boulder on which it rests. The jagged outline of his coat “rhymes” with the jagged outlines of the boulders. The color and texture of his hair are the same as the color and texture of the wisps of vegetation between the boulders. Further, the row of rocks in the near distance—themselves as blocky as the wanderer—continues the jagged line of the hem of his coat. The sloping shoulders of the mountain peaks to his left and of the crag to his right exhibit an immovable equilibrium and echo the lines of the wanderer’s shoulders; the crag itself exhibits a compact solidity and echoes the wanderer’s head.

The wanderer, the painting tells us, is as corporeal as rock. The mist and the clouds are not. They are material, yet non-solid and non-tangible—and they become gradually more so as they converge in the distance. In the foreground they are thick, modeled into drifty forms, opaque; in the distance they become a uniform haze, bordering on immateriality. By virtue of their form, color, and texture, the mist and the clouds exhibit gradations of corporeality.

As an effect of the mist and clouds in the atmosphere, the painting’s solid objects also exhibit gradations of corporeality, from the sharply defined forms and contrasts of the foreground to the washed-out, two-dimensional shapes in the distant haze. In the farthest distance, toward which the wanderer is looking, the faint suggestions of misty mountain ridges blend with the clouds, possessing hardly any characteristics beyond reflecting the sunlight. The sunlight represents the complete absence of materiality. It is pure spirit—the mind of God.

Friedrich’s wanderer has reached his limit of ascension. He can go no farther, only retrace his steps in descent. He is of the earth, and he cannot transcend it to become pure spirit. He can only contemplate the divine at a distance—across the range of corporeality that (in Friedrich’s view) separates man from the ideal, spiritual mode of being.

The theme of Wanderer above a Sea of Mist is “the limitation of corporeal man’s spiritual ascent.”

This statement of Friedrich’s theme goes beyond a mere identification of the symbolic content of his painting. But then, his method of concretizing his theme goes beyond the mere inclusion of symbols (or the joining of symbols into an allegorical structure). For example, Friedrich’s wanderer does not merely symbolize “corporeality” through some single characteristic or feature; he represents this abstraction through all of his features, down to the jagged line of the hem of his coat. Similarly, the mist and clouds represent the abstraction of “non-corporeal materiality” through their various characteristics, from the fluffiness of the opaque drifts in the foreground to the diffuseness of the distant haze.

Or to put this point in broader terms, Friedrich’s composition is stylized.

To “stylize” is to condense an object to essential characteristics relative to a specific value-perspective.7 The most obvious value-perspective of an art work is supplied by the theme—in the case of Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, “the limitation of corporeal man’s spiritual ascent” (which is an abstraction pertaining to human values). And as we have seen, every feature of Friedrich’s composition exhibits some essence of this theme.

A theme is the artist’s abstract standard of what to include or omit in his work.8 But now observe that Friedrich could not have created his stylized composition armed only with his theme as his standard of selection. His abstract message might have led him to the painting’s allegorical constellation—a man stands on a summit, looking at the distant sunlight—but it would not have led him to the angle of the man’s right arm, the posture of his legs, the outline of his coat skirt, and the shape of the distant crag. By reference to the theme alone, Friedrich could not separate the concretes that form a unity from the millions of equally thematic concretes that could never be unified in a single object.

As I have argued elsewhere, a stylizing artist needs a core combination.9

A core combination is a standard of selection that, while corresponding to the abstract theme, is itself a part—the core part—of an art work’s concrete subject matter. It is an original creation of the artist and unique to any given work of art.

For example, the main kind of core combination in narrative literature is a central plot conflict, or what Ayn Rand calls a “plot-theme.” The plot-theme is “[t]he link between the theme and the events of a novel.” It isolates in the subject matter a particular abstract meaning—for example, “independence” in the case of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, or “integrity” in the case Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac—and by this fact it constitutes “the first step of the translation of an abstract theme into a story.” The further steps are the logical unfolding of the central conflict into a progression of events—events in which the thematic abstraction remains isolated and highlighted.10

If the theme is an abstraction governing the author’s view of what ought to be—as with “independence” or “integrity”—then “things as they might be and ought to be” is precisely what becomes concretized in every feature of the total story.

The visual arts, too, may present a stylized whole—a unity of normative essentials. But because they do not represent human action across time, their means to this end is not a plot-theme and a logical progression of events. The visual arts represent physical objects through particular uses of line, shape, form, tone, color, texture, and so on. These uses are the design means of a work of visual art—and the kind of core combination proper to such art is an element we may call the design-theme.

A design-theme is a unity of representational content and design means that isolates thematic meaning and that can be structurally expanded.

The design-theme of Wanderer above a Sea of Mist is “a blocky wanderer stands on a heavenward triangular mountain summit—his blocky head surmounting the heavenward triangular lines of his shoulders—facing an immaterial sunlight across spreads of mist and clouds that are fluffy and drifty in the foreground, a thin haze in the distance.”

Note that terms like “blocky,” “heavenward triangular,” “fluffy but drifty,” “haze,” are verbal summations of particular, visually imagined, lines, shapes, forms, and textures. These are the painting’s central design means. The unity of design means and central representational content—wanderer, summit, mist, clouds—isolates in the core subject matter the abstractions of heavenward ascension, of the blocking of such ascent, and of degrees of corporeality.

Now observe what happens when this central unity—the design-theme—is expanded into a full-fledged compositional structure.

To say (or imagine) that a man’s body and head are “blocky,” and the lines of his shoulders “triangular,” is rudimentary. A full representation requires more: arms, legs, torso, clothes. Friedrich provides this by subdividing the wanderer’s blocky figure into similar blocks—torso and angle of right arm, leg posture, coat skirt—without destroying the general rectangular outline. Similarly, he gives detail to the summit by breaking it up into a pile of blocky boulders without destroying the general heavenward triangularity.

Friedrich is not merely “filling in” details. He is expanding the design-theme unity of representational content and design means. This central unity isolates a particular abstract meaning, which remains isolated and highlighted in the further concretes that together expand the unity. The separate blocky shapes of the wanderer’s body and the summit exhibit the same corporeality as the wanderer’s blocky head and overall outline.

The addition of entirely new objects also expands the design-theme. For example, the added rock formations with their diminishing corporeality (not specified in the design-theme) complete a thematically expressive structure created by the similarly graded corporeality of the mist and clouds (specified in the design-theme). And on the same basic pattern, the triangularity of the distant peaks expands a design-theme motif: the lines of the wanderer’s shoulders and the summit. Similarly, the blocky crag and row of rocks expand the design-theme motif of the shape of the wanderer’s body and head.

In every case, the concretes expanding the design-theme exhibit the essence of the abstract meaning isolated by the design-theme. Just as the diminishment of corporeality of the clouds and mist speaks to the distance between man and God, so does the similar diminishment of the corporeality of the rocks. Just as the heavenward lines of the summit and the wanderer’s shoulders speak to spiritual ascent, so do the similar lines of the shoulders of the distant peaks.

In this manner, every feature of every object in the painting comes to exhibit some essence of Friedrich’s theme—as part of a unity of such normative essentials.

The painting is stylized.

In descriptions of Friedrich’s paintings, the word “echo” is often used to indicate a similarity between objects. Sometimes his objects are said to “rhyme.” I have myself used these words in analyzing Wanderer above a Sea of Mist. And visual echoes or rhymes are inherent in the method of visual stylization. Because the crux of that method is the expansion of a central unity of content and design means, different objects and parts of objects will naturally come to share the same design means—namely, those uses of the elements of design that isolate thematic meaning in the representational content.

This fact is significant for reasons pertaining to the nature of abstract thought. Such thought depends on man’s ability to group objects according to their similarities, regardless of their differences. In regard to simple concepts like “apple,” the similarities involved are directly perceivable; apples are round, shiny, within a certain range of size, and so on. However, when it comes to highly advanced, normative abstractions such as “spiritual ascent,” the similarities of the referents are not perceptually given, but must themselves be identified conceptually.

Except in art. For example, in Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, certain objects—the wanderer’s shoulders, the summit, the shoulders of the distant peaks—bear close visual resemblance, precisely through those characteristics that isolate and exhibit the essence of “spiritual ascent.” The abstraction “spiritual ascent” has been given concrete, directly perceivable, visual characteristics: a certain kind of sloping, triangular lines.

The resultant union of the abstract and the concrete exists only within the world of this particular painting and is real to the viewer only so long as he contemplates it. Nevertheless, the union has profound psychological importance. Although romantic art is concerned with “things as they might be and ought to be,” it does not present a didactic message as would a lecture on ethics. In Ayn Rand’s words, “art does not teach—it shows, it displays the full, concretized reality of the final goal.”11

Since man’s ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—man needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel. Art gives him the experience of seeing the full, immediate, concrete reality of his distant goals.12

Wanderer above a Sea of Mist gives the viewer such an experience. It shows a man reaching the limit of his spiritual ascent and accepting it with serene composure. And it makes the value-abstractions “spiritual,” “ascent,” and (corporeal) “limitation” visual—that is, perceivable by the sense of sight.

The painting shows—in the concrete and on the terms of Friedrich’s own moral vision—“things as they might be and ought to be.”

Soria Moria Castle

A wanderer stands in the mountains above a sea of mist. Far away, blue mountain ridges rise out of the mist; on the highest ridge a great castle of gold shines and glitters. The sky is covered with clouds, which open in the distance to let the sunlight illuminate the castle. Their lines, shapes, and forms barely suggested, the castle and ridges hover on the edge of non-corporeality—in sharp contrast to the realistic detail of the foreground and the figure of the wanderer.

2. Kittelsen, Theodor (1857–1914) Soria Moria Castle. 1900. Oil on canvas. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway Photo: Jacques Lathion

2. Kittelsen, Theodor (1857–1914)
Soria Moria Castle. 1900. Oil on canvas.
The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway
Photo: Jacques Lathion

The Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen’s Soria Moria Castle, 1900 (fig. 2), is influenced by Friedrich’s Wanderer above a Sea of Mist. But it differs from Friedrich’s painting in crucial ways, and the comparison is instructive for understanding visual stylization.

First, Kittelsen’s wanderer is a boy on the edge of manhood, not a grown man. Second, the boy is standing on a mountain plateau, not on a summit; he can go farther. Third, his posture implies readiness to go farther: He is resting his staff, but not resting on it. Fourth, there is no gradation of corporeality in the composition. It is divided between a naturalistic, detailed foreground and a misty, suggestive distance—and the border between these parts, the edge of the mist bank right in front of the boy, is sharply defined (as mist goes). By taking a few short steps, the boy will move straight from the realm of naturalism and into its opposite—into the realm of mist, mystery, and romance.

“When a region cloaks itself in mist,” wrote Friedrich, “it appears larger and more sublime, elevating the imagination and rousing the expectations like a veiled girl. The eye and the imagination are generally more attracted by hazy distance than by what lies close and clear before the eye.”13 By veiling the prosaic, mist leaves the mind free to imagine the sublime. However, in Friedrich’s own Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, the wanderer has already passed through the mist to encounter the sublime, and there is no implication that anything but the prosaic lies hidden below. But the mist in Soria Moria Castle still separates the boy and the sublime. He is only about to pass through it, as he is only about to set out on life’s journey, and he is still free to imagine.

The theme of Soria Moria Castle is “the undefined longing of youth for something great and exciting” (or, more abstractly, “for the sublime as opposed to the prosaic”). This theme is concretized in a stylized composition by means of a design-theme—a central unity of representational content and design means, isolating abstract qualities.

Observe that the banks of mist and clouds echo each other: Both are uniform spreads of light gray turning wispy in the far distance, where the mist sinks into the valleys between the blue ridges, and the cloud bank opens to let the sunlight hit the gold castle. This parallelism of design expresses parallel characteristics of mist and clouds: They hide and obscure—but in their fleeting insubstantiality, they may also, fleetingly, reveal.

What they reveal is the blue ridges and the gold castle. These share one obvious characteristic: They are distant. They appear so because Kittelsen has represented the effects of atmosphere; due to the haze and humidity in the air, distant objects seem indistinct, formless, lacking in contrast between light and dark, and often blue—which is why blue is the color of distance and romance. Kittelsen’s rendering of these effects, especially the lack of distinct form, is radical but seems realistic because of the scene’s mist. His gold castle and blue ridges represent the “great and exciting” that youth longs for; their indistinct, suggestive design exhibits their essential characteristic (relative to the theme) of being a distant, undefined “something,” rather than familiar and definite.

The ridges and castle are not accidental symbols of the boy’s longing for the great and exciting. Blue, distant mountains would very likely hitherto have been this rustic boy’s only glimpse of a larger, unfamiliar world, and fairy tales his main source of that sense of life that longs for the extraordinary. Such mountains, and a fairy-tale castle, are therefore just the kind of concretes that would, in his mind, concretize his longing. The painting projects his mental content in a fantasy version of reality. And observe the elongated, gently undulating lines of the gold castle and the mountain ridges. These design means (combined with the mist and the castle’s glittery shine) make the objects appear unstable, swaying, dreamy—characteristics essential not to concrete objects in the real world but to the shifting, evanescent attempts at mentally concretizing an undefined longing.

(Some painters render all of their objects as formless, dreamy, unstable blobs of color, bordering on the nonrepresentational—which conveys a skepticism toward, or rejection of, the absolutism of reality and the efficacy of human perception. Note that Kittelsen’s identical design means convey no such message. They are used not to express a judgment about reality as such but to concretize a narrower, normative abstraction: the ideals of youth.)

Unlike the wanderer and summit in Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, the boy and foreground in Soria Moria Castle are not united with the rest of the painting’s content by common design means isolating abstract qualities. The foreground is simply a typical Norwegian mountain terrain, covered with heather and lichenous rocks; the boy, a typical penniless young man traveling by foot and carrying his belongings on his back. This part of the painting represents “the prosaic,” but not because, say, the white of the lichen or the roundness of the boy’s bag isolate in these objects the quality of “prosaicness.” (One could say that the boy’s round contours isolate a certain prosaic homeliness; however, this design means is not expanded throughout the composition.)

Kittelsen differentiates this part of his composition from the rest precisely by not stylizing it but painting it naturalistically. But in the full context of the painting, the naturalistic foreground does speak to the essence of the theme: This is the kind of familiar world that youth longs to escape from. This is “things as they are,” as contrasted with “things as they ought to be.”

The Cross in the Mountains

A crucifix stands on top of a rock in the mountains. The sun is setting behind the rock; we can see only its dying rays, which illuminate with reddish light the cloudy sky and the carved, gilded figure of Jesus. That figure is turned partly away from us, toward the sunset. The crucifix is surrounded by spruces.

3. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840) The Cross in the Mountains. 1807–1808. Oil on canvas, 115 x 110 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

3. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840)
The Cross in the Mountains. 1807–1808. Oil on canvas, 115 x 110 cm.
Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

The painting that made Friedrich famous in his time, The Cross in the Mountains (or, The Tetschen Altar, 1808, fig. 3), clearly has an allegorical dimension. And for once, Friedrich broke his usual policy and provided a verbal explanation:

Jesus Christ, nailed to the tree, is turned here towards the sinking sun, the image of the eternal life-giving father. With Jesus’ teaching an old world dies—that time when God the Father moved directly on the earth. This sun sank and the earth was not able to grasp the departing light any longer. There shines forth in the gold of the evening light the purest, noblest metal of the Saviour’s figure on the cross, which thus reflects on earth in a softened glow. The cross stands erected on a rock, unshakably firm like our faith in Jesus Christ. The firs stand around the cross, evergreen, enduring through all ages, like the hopes of man in Him, the crucified.14

The theme of The Cross in the Mountains is “the world’s melancholic worship of a departed God.” But we do not need Friedrich’s own words to identify this theme; every feature of the objects depicted speaks to its essence.

The painting’s design-theme comprises the objects Friedrich himself names in his description: the rock, the spruces, the crucifix, and the sinking sun. The rock is a cone with a triangular outline, pointing heavenward. The spruces are heavenward triangles. Heaven is the abode of God, so this design of rock and spruces implies religious worship.

The motif of heavenward triangles (or cones) is a standard of selection both for the detailed treatment of the rock and the spruces themselves and for the painting’s other objects. Thus, the lines of the large boulders on top of the rock form triangles if continued; and the foreground slope of the rock is a study in triangles formed by the interplay of grass, stones, and trees. The implied lines through the tops of the spruces (and the crucifix) form a large triangle corresponding to the outline of the rock. The lines of the clouds form a triangle with its base at the foot of the crucifix and its apex at the top. The crossbar of the crucifix is the base of a triangle completed by the implied lines from the ends of the crossbar to the top of the crucifix.

It is as if every earthly element directs itself toward heaven in silent worship.

Now take another design-theme object: the crucifix. (This is a realistic element; such nature crosses were common in Germany.) As the foremost Christian symbol, the crucifix comes replete with abstract meanings and connotations for any Western viewer, and Friedrich counts on this fact.15 But to use the crucifix for his own thematic end, Friedrich must isolate a specific meaning—that of Jesus’ dying cry on Calvary: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

He does so by means of the last design-theme element: the sinking sun. This symbol of God’s mind is present in the painting not directly but through the characteristics of the other objects. The dark silhouettes of the spruces and the vertical bar of the cross, as well as the rusty reds of the clouds, the boulders, and the figure of Jesus—these colors and contrasts are those of dusk and sunset; they evoke the act of God’s departure.

Further design integrations complete the concretization of the theme. The tall, straight tree trunks echo the vertical bar of the cross, and the spruce boughs, curving upward in symmetrical pairs, echo the crucified arms of Jesus. This gives the worship evidenced by the spruces a tone of suffering. Further, like the body of Jesus, the spruce boughs have a heavy, sagging quality, suggesting a melancholic resignation to loss.

So do the clouds. Heavy and inert, they cover every inch of the sky. And when the foremost banks rise upward to form the apex of a heavenward triangle, it seems an effort against tremendous downward pressure.

Now let us compare The Cross in the Mountains with another Friedrich painting that is similar in many ways.

Winter Landscape

A crucifix stands in a small grove of spruces in a landscape covered with snow. A man sits in front of the grove, almost lying down, resting his back against a boulder; he looks up at the crucifix and prays. His crutches lie in the snow as if cast away permanently upon his approach; yet from his sickly posture we know that the man is not healed from whatever ails him. In the distance rise the hazy towers and spires of a Gothic cathedral. In the foreground, hardy blades of grass stick up through the snow.

4. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840) Winter Landscape. 1811. Oil on canvas. 32.5 x 45 cm. NG6517. The National Gallery, London, Great Britain Photo Credit: © The National Gallery, London

4. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840)
Winter Landscape. 1811. Oil on canvas. 32.5 x 45 cm. NG6517.
The National Gallery, London, Great Britain
Photo Credit: © The National Gallery, London

Like The Cross in the Mountains, Friedrich’s Winter Landscape, 1811 (fig. 4), presents us with a crucifix. But this new crucifix is different and conveys a different meaning.

First, the cross is not a silhouette against the sky, and the body of Jesus does not shine with the reddish light of doom. Reflecting the neutral light from an overcast sky, the crucifix is the color of wood. So are the man’s discarded crutches. Further, the crutches are cruciform—long rods with a short crosspiece, whose curve echoes the V-shape of Jesus’ arms on the cross. What abstract meaning do these design means isolate? The characteristic that crutches and crucifix have in common: They are means of support.

Crutches are a means of physical support, which the man no longer needs; the wooden crucifix has been produced as a means of spiritual support, which he does need.

Second, the crucifix in Winter Landscape stands among spruces, whose boughs, twigs, and shoots echo Jesus’ crucified arms—but the boughs here are firmer and more vigorous than the sagging ones in The Cross in the Mountains. White snow sprinkles the crucifix and the green spruces. And in a reverse parallelism of design, the foreground is dotted by blades of grass sticking up through the white snow.

What is the meaning of all of these objects? The snow represents winter and death; the grass dotting it represents the promise of spring and rebirth. The evergreen spruces represent eternal life. The snow only lightly sprinkles them, as it only lightly sprinkles the cross and the figure of He who would be reborn, like the blades of grass in spring. What it all adds up to is: the hope of eternal life.

The symbolic meanings here are traditional. But just as a crucifix can represent many abstractions, so can snow, grass, and spruces. Friedrich isolates a specific meaning, not simply by uniting symbolic objects (which would be allegory) but by making his design means integrate the characteristics essential to the relevant meaning.

For example, Jesus’ V-shaped arms are a characteristic of His death on the cross, which (in the Christian view) is essential not only to His rebirth, but to man’s. The healthy upward curves of the spruce boughs, which echo Jesus’ arms, are characteristic of the spruces as evergreens. This characteristic enables the spruces to shed any amount of snow beyond a light sprinkling, and so to stand firm and green throughout winter. And the emergence of grass blades through the snow, which parallels the sprinkling of snow on the spruces, is characteristic of the ability of grass to reemerge in the spring.

Third, unlike in The Cross in the Mountains, the crucifix and the spruces in Winter Landscape do not stand alone, in isolation from one another. The spruces form a unity, a grove, of which the crucifix is part. Further, the design of this unity closely parallels the design of the cathedral in the background. The tall, straight, majestic verticals of the spruces echo the similar lines of the cathedral—and the delicate shoots at the top of the two tallest trees echo the delicate cathedral spires. As the cathedral has its side towers, so the tallest spruce has its single “side tree,” on the left side. The tallest spruce is as tall as the tallest spire; the “side tree,” as tall as the spires on the cathedral’s side towers.

The motif of a main vertical flanked by lower side verticals extends the motif of heavenward triangularity, which isolates the essence of religious worship. And a more specific abstract meaning is isolated by the totality of shared design between grove and cathedral: Both constitute a commanding structure of worship.

The grove with the crucifix constitutes a cathedral of nature. As a minor variation on the same theme, the spruce sapling and the boulders at the left side of the painting form a chapel of nature. Its triangular shapes echo those of the cathedral; and the sapling has its own tiny “side tree,” emerging from behind the boulders, on the right side.

Not only does the shared design of grove and cathedral isolate a common meaning (“structure of worship”), but this meaning in turn forms the context within which the difference in design between cathedral and grove isolates a further meaning. The man-made cathedral is hazy, almost ephemeral, remote not in physical distance (it looms large) but in perceptual immediacy. By contrast, the cathedral of nature, the grove with its crucifix, is distinct and immediate. It is closer to God.

In sum, the design means in Winter Landscape isolate three meanings of the crucifix: spiritual support, the hope of eternal life, and an intermediacy between man and God that is more direct than that offered by organized religion. By uniting these meanings, we reach the painting’s theme: “man’s consoling hope of eternal life through Jesus.”

The praying man stops at the grove rather than going on toward the cathedral in the distance. He does not need the latter to find consolation in his faith and in the hope of eternal life. All he needs is a simple representation of Jesus in nature’s cathedral.

Cathedrals, spruces, and crucifixes are staples of Friedrich’s design-themes; he uses them again and again, in varying combinations. But as shown by Winter Landscape and The Cross in the Mountains, he does not simply copy himself. Even when he employs largely the same objects, there is usually enough difference in design means to ensure that his design-theme is unique to each work and corresponds to a distinct theme. The exception is some cases when he paints exactly the same painting several times, as a form of reproduction to satisfy commercial demand. Leaving these cases aside, each painting of Friedrich’s is unique.

Yet at the same time they are all recognizably the product of the same personality; they are uniquely his paintings. Let us see why.

Extra-Thematic Premises

A romantic art work expresses much more than just the artist’s theme. For example, all of the Friedrich paintings we have looked at depict the worship of the divine, yet the divine is never directly represented. Friedrich paints neither God the Father, as Michelangelo does in the Sistine Chapel, nor God the Son, as in a traditional Crucifixion scene. His crucifixes are symbols erected by men as acts of worship. His use of sunlight to represent divine consciousness is similarly symbolic: Friedrich does not believe that the sun is actually God. For Friedrich, the ideal mode of being as pure spirit has no immediacy as a perceivable presence in the material world.

In The Cross in the Mountains, the premise of God’s non-immediacy is part of the thematic abstraction, “the world’s melancholic worship of a departed God.” God is not perceivable because he has gone away, and the idea of his going away is isolated in the painting’s union of representational content and design means (the sunset and its effect on the other objects). This same premise of God’s non-immediacy is implied by other Friedrich paintings in which he depicts the worship of God but not God Himself, as in Wanderer above a Sea of Mist. But observe that here, nothing in the theme, “the limitation of corporeal man’s spiritual ascent,” dictates whether the artist should include the ultimate goal of such ascent. In other words, Friedrich’s choice to omit the divine implies a premise (God’s non-immediacy) that differs from the theme.

The projection of such extra-thematic premises is inherent in the nature of creation by means of design-themes. The design-theme is the link between the theme and the various concretes of a painting; but it is itself a specific concrete, and only one of many forms in which the theme might be concretized. The choice of a particular form does not depend on the theme alone, nor on the theme plus chance (because nothing in art should be chance). Rather, it depends on the theme plus the artist’s extra-thematic value-premises.

An extra-thematic projection is often a function partly of the thematic concretization. For example, in Wanderer above a Sea of Mist it is only the context of a man’s ascent toward the divine that makes the absence of the divine imply the premise of God’s non-immediacy. In a painting that does not deal with religious worship, such as the Mona Lisa, the lack of a divine presence implies nothing at all.

Or take Kittelsen’s Soria Moria Castle. The theme is “the undefined longing of youth for the sublime as opposed to the prosaic.” Nothing in this theme dictates whether the artist should represent the sublime as material or as immaterial. When Kittelsen does the former, when he represents the sublime as blue mountain ridges and a gold castle, he implies an extra-thematic premise: The sublime can take, and be given, material shape on earth. But this implication does not rest merely on the fact of his presenting material objects; otherwise, every representational painting would imply the same premise. The ridges and castle imply that the sublime can take material shape because they are material and they are regarded by the young wanderer as sublime. In other words, the extra-thematic projection is partly a function of the thematic one.

What determines whether a particular premise is thematic or extra-thematic? The issue of whether it has been isolated by the union of representation and design means. For example, in Soria Moria Castle the formless, unstable design of the blue ridges and gold castle isolates characteristics essential to “the undefined sublime.” This latter, then, is a thematic abstraction. By contrast, the painting’s design means do not isolate characteristics essential to “materiality” (especially because, in isolating “undefined,” the design means make the ideal objects seem almost immaterial). The potential materiality of the sublime is thus an extra-thematic premise.

Let us now return to Friedrich. His worshippers (and crucifixes) are alone in nature, which implies that, to reach for the spiritual, man needs distance from man. This premise is closely connected to the theme of Winter Landscape (to the idea that nature and a simple crucifix offer a more direct channel to God than do human institutions such as the church). The same premise is not part of the theme of Wanderer above a Sea of Mist, “the limitation of corporeal man’s spiritual ascent.” Yet it is nevertheless conveyed by the presentation of a wanderer who reaches for the spiritual—and who is alone in nature.

Or take the fact that Friedrich’s wanderer is male. This is incidental to the theme; women, too, are corporeal. But it is not chance that makes Friedrich depict a man and not a woman in this painting, nor is it because men are better mountain climbers. The real reason is that Friedrich regards men as more weighed down by their material nature than women, who are (at least ideally) more spiritual. In one painting, Morning in the Riesengebirge (1811), he makes this view of the sexes his actual theme. But in Wanderer above a Sea of Mist it functions merely as an extra-thematic premise that makes him depict a man, rather than a woman, confronting the human limitation of corporeality.

A stylized art work is condensed to essential characteristics relative to some value-perspective. Such a unity of essentials requires a core combination: a standard of selection that corresponds to the abstract theme but is itself the core of the work’s subject matter. As a specific concrete, such a standard will necessarily contain theme-incidental characteristics—a wanderer’s maleness, a castle’s materiality—and so will the concrete attributes chosen by reference to it.

But this inclusion of incidental characteristics is not a breach of stylization—provided those characteristics are essential to some extra-thematic premise of the artist’s. As long as they are, the design-theme will engender a unity where every characteristic speaks to the essence of a value-perspective broader than the theme: that of the artist’s full personality.

Every painting, Friedrich said, is “a character study of the person who painted it. For that matter, a person’s inner spiritual and moral self is expressed in virtually everything he does. But the more clearly and decisively and harmoniously all that one does and creates is of a piece, the more genuine, the more decisive one is, whether good or bad.”16

What permits Friedrich to project his values in creations that are “of a piece”? His design-themes. These make every characteristic of his standard of selection, and thus of his integrated work of art, exhibit the essence of his inner spiritual and moral self.

And so, through his artistic method, Friedrich reveals another extra-thematic premise of his: The spiritual can be given shape on earth. Friedrich’s spirit, not God’s.

Two Men Contemplating the Moon

Two men wearing Old German costume stand on a rocky path winding up a mountainside, beneath the droopy branches of an old spruce and the dead branches of a dying oak. The men are looking at the moon below them in the night sky.

5. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840) Two Men Contemplating the Moon. 1819–1820. Oil on canvas. 35 x 44.5 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

5. Friedrich, Caspar David (1774–1840)
Two Men Contemplating the Moon. 1819–1820. Oil on canvas. 35 x 44.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

In 1820, as Friedrich was showing some visitors his Two Men Contemplating the Moon, ca. 1819–20 (fig. 5), he remarked about the figures in the painting: “They are plotting demagogic intrigues.” His remark was ironic: The two men are not plotting intrigues. But Friedrich’s irony had a real-life target. The year before, a student had assassinated the conservative playwright August Kotzebue. This upset Metternich, Austria’s foreign minister and the architect of the new European order after the Napoleonic Wars. A master intriguer himself, Metternich railed against “demagogic intrigues” and clamped down on freedom of the universities, and of the press, in the German states. There followed a period of Demagogenverfolgung (“persecution of demagogues”), characterized by ubiquitous spying, arrests, and interrogations.

Old German costume, with its dark cloak and velvet beret, had been invented by an acquaintance of Friedrich’s as a uniform for freedom fighters against Napoleonic rule. After the restoration of the German princes, it became the attire of (19th-century) liberals such as Friedrich—men who advocated universal franchise, freedom of speech, and German unification. During the Demagogenverfolgung, this costume was condemned by Metternich as provocative and was outlawed in some states.

Had Metternich seen Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon, he might well have suspected the men in Old German costume of plotting intrigues. What are they doing on this mountain path after sunset? The larger world is at rest, as indicated by the languid drooping of the spruce’s boughs, and by the distant spruces at the right, which stand like a motionless row of silent guardians on an uneventful post. And why is the younger man resting his arm on the other’s shoulder, leaning into him as if whispering a secret in his ear?

Metternich would have been right to detect an atmosphere of intrigue in the painting. This atmosphere is concretized in a stylized composition with echoing design means that extend from the central content—the two men, the moon, and the dying oak—onward to the most derivative touches.

The oak trunk’s upward curve away from the boulder on the right is echoed in the oak root’s curve around the bottom of the boulder. The boulder represents an obstacle to the oak’s unhindered growth, which the oak overcomes by the stratagem of curving. Echoing the oak, the mountain path curves around the obstacle of the boulder on the left and away from the boulder on the right.

A more craftily sinister curving is evidenced by the pair of tentacular oak roots stretching toward the two men. The roots curve sinuously as if to avoid the obstacle of potential detection: The curves are feints that disguise the roots’ true direction, and thus their purpose, which, because the roots are too feeble to take on the men physically, seems to be that of spying on them.

The pair of roots is echoed in the pairs of twigs growing on each side of the oak tree’s trunk and, most importantly, in the forked twig stretching down from the oak branch above the two men. If the oak is seen as a (traditional) symbol of the German State, its roots and twigs allude to Metternich’s spies. And the fact that these come in pairs gives their crafty indirection a more conspiratorial quality than a single tentacle would exhibit.

A chilling touch is the tree stump in front of the boulder at the left. The depiction of a tree stump is a memento mori, a reminder of death, used as such in several of Friedrich’s paintings. But usually his stumps are jagged, as if the tree has broken naturally in a storm. Here the stump has a flat, even top: The tree has been sawed off. It is an allusion to murder.

The scene is almost monochromatic, which makes everything hard to distinguish—which invites paranoia. In the words of one commentator: “The moon has suffused the nocturnal landscape with a uniformly reddish-brown twilight, one that ties all objects [except the men] together as though they were composed of a single element.”17 The moon itself is one of these objects. It has the same chromatic quality as the sky and the landscape and would be indistinguishable if not for a faint circular outline of light, which thickens slightly to indicate the crescent. The crescent in turn echoes the “intrigue curve” of the oak trunk and the mountain path. In other words, the design means make even the moon, a celestial body and a symbol of the divine, at least partly take on some vaguely menacing earthly characteristics.

According to tradition, the older man in the painting is Friedrich himself; the younger man, one of his students. The student’s bent posture echoes the curves of the mountain path and the oak. Is he trying to involve Friedrich in intrigue, bending and whispering in order to foil the obstacle of listening spies and perhaps the mental obstacle of Friedrich’s indifference? If so, he is unsuccessful. Friedrich stands straight, not bending to lend the student his ear, equally unconcerned with the younger man and the oak’s spying tentacles. He is looking at the moon.

The theme of Two Men Contemplating the Moon is “the noble mind’s aloofness from an atmosphere of intrigue.”

Are they “plotting demagogic intrigues”? Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Yet Friedrich’s painting does have topical meaning. In 1820, simply painting two men wearing Old German costume would make a political statement. But Friedrich does much more. He presents a thematic concretization of “intrigue” and of “noble aloofness from intrigue.” Then he cleverly applies this concretization of moral universals to the liberals and police agents of his own time by means of a theme-incidental aspect of form: the Old German costume—and an object with a theme-incidental symbolic meaning: the oak.

This is political propaganda on the highest level—precisely because the political message is strictly extra-thematic. It depends for its power on the thematic concretization; but the latter stands untouched and can be grasped by modern viewers who know nothing about Old German costume or the traditional symbolism of oaks.

How will a modern viewer interpret this painting?

I, for one, do not believe that the student is trying to involve Friedrich in intrigue, or even whispering to him. I think that he, too, is looking at the moon. But his attitude is less emotionally mature than the older man’s. He is caught up in the general atmosphere of intrigue; and he bends conspiratorially toward his teacher, as if the mere act of looking at the moon on a mountain path at night were the equivalent of hatching a political plot—which, in a police state, it could very well be taken to be.

Within the world of this painting, a particular kind of curving line is the concrete form of “crafty indirection in overcoming obstacles.” In bending as he does, the student is not overcoming obstacles; but by his receptiveness to suggestion from his surroundings, his posture unconsciously takes on the form of intrigue.

The figure of Friedrich himself does not. His immovable, pyramidal shape echoes the boulder to the left and is as unresponsive as it is to the machinations of his surroundings. His attention is fixed on the divine.

This painting shows Friedrich both as artist and as subject—and in each capacity, he follows the injunction of Friedrich the thinker: “[T]rade only in what you recognize to be true and beautiful, noble and good in your soul.”

If romantic art is concerned with things as they might be and ought to be, then Two Men Contemplating the Moon is a romantic painting par excellence.

Friedrich and the Romantic School

Not only is Friedrich a quintessentially romantic painter; the ups and downs of his career corresponded to the historical fortunes of romantic art. Romanticism flourished briefly in the first half of the 19th century, supplanting classicism as the dominant art school before it was itself supplanted by naturalism. Likewise, Friedrich started by opposing classicism, enjoyed a brief prominence, then went out of fashion as the influence of naturalism rose, and by his death in 1840 was considered a relic of an outmoded, romantic past.

Friedrich’s fame began with The Cross in the Mountains. Designed as an altarpiece, the painting was first exhibited in Friedrich’s studio at Christmas 1808. The following month, the Zeitung für die elegante Welt published an attack on the painting by F. W. B. von Ramdohr, a spokesman for classicism, and an intense public controversy ensued.

For the classicists, landscape painting was a lowly genre; in the words of the artist Peter Cornelius, “a kind of moss or twining growth upon the great trunk of art.”18 It was unsuited for religious subjects, which were the province of history painting, the “grand genre.” This latter dealt with morally serious subjects by depicting scenes from history, mythology, and the Bible—scenes in which the meaning of each object and action was already familiar to the viewer. In other words, the classicists counted on the viewer’s familiarity not merely with generic objects, such as the crucifix, but with specific concretes, such as historical personages and events. As Ramdohr put it:

We have grown up in the sure knowledge of the events [that history painting] depicts, and the least allusion to them arouses a host of the most moving facts, character traits and words! [Such painting] can portray the Last Supper, which we mean to re-enact at the altar, and through depiction of the figures and facial expressions of the Saviour and his faithful followers can invite us to worthy celebration of that rite.

This outlook explains the classicist opposition to The Cross in the Mountains, and why Ramdohr regarded it as “truly an act of presumption if landscape painting tries to sidle into churches and creep on to altars.”19

The classicists upheld their own version of the idea that art should present what ought to be—the uplifted, the ideal, something fit for altars. But they held a thoroughly second-handed view of the nature of the ideal, which they could concretize only by recycling conventional clichés.

In his 1830 “Observations on Viewing a Collection of Paintings,” Friedrich answered the classicists as follows: “[A]nything in nature can become the subject of art if properly and worthily and sensibly perceived. And though it may not have been so perceived by any painter heretofore, that does not mean that it will not be in the future.”20

By the time Friedrich wrote his “Observations,” naturalism was already ascendant (at least in German landscape painting), and he was out of fashion. “Friedrich chains us to an abstract idea,” one of the new generation of painters said, discarding such chains.21 The function of art was no longer to present the ideal but to faithfully copy nature.

Friedrich responded: “The painter should not merely paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing inside, he should refrain from painting what he sees in front of him.”22

Unlike the naturalists, Friedrich deals with grand value-abstractions: What an artist sees “inside himself” is his conceptions of human values and man’s relationship to the universe. Unlike the classicists, Friedrich concretizes his abstractions not by shuffling old standbys but by taking a fresh, first-handed look at nature.

The result is a body of art works that bear the hallmark of romanticism: a creative and individual projection of “things as they might be and ought to be.”23

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1 Ayn Rand, “Introduction to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition,” in The Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 1993), p. v. See also my “What Might Be and Ought to Be: Aristotle’s Poetics and The Fountainhead,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, edited by Robert Mayhew (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007), pp. 155–75.

2 Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: New American Library, 2005), p. 224.

3 Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 23.

4 Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” p. v.

5 Ayn Rand, “What Is Romanticism?” in The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, rev. ed. (New York: Signet, 1975), p. 107.

6 Quoted in Wieland Schmied, Caspar David Friedrich (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), p. 45.

7 This formulation is adapted from Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” Romantic Manifesto, particularly pp. 67, 72. Ayn Rand comments on the stylized aspect of romantic art in Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 224.

8 See Ayn Rand, “Basic Principles of Literature,” Romantic Manifesto, p. 81.

9 See my “The Fountainhead as a Romantic Novel,” in Mayhew, Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, pp. 119–53.

10 Ayn Rand, “Basic Principles of Literature,” p. 85. Ayn Rand commented on the role of the plot conflict in isolating the abstract theme of both The Fountainhead and Cyrano de Bergerac. See the quotes in my “What Might Be and Ought to Be,” p. 169; and in Shoshana Milgram, “Three Inspirations for the Ideal Man,” in the same collection, pp. 192–93. I discuss the mechanics of this kind of abstract isolation in “What Might Be and Ought to Be.” In regard to the plot-theme, not the theme, serving as the direct standard of selection, see Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, edited by Tore Boeckmann (New York: Plume, 2000), p. 31.

11 Ayn Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” Romantic Manifesto, p. 169.

12 Ibid., p. 170.

13 Quoted in Werner Hofmann, Caspar David Friedrich (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 272.

14 Quoted in Helmut Börsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich (New York: George Braziller, 1974), p. 78. This passage refers to the trees in the painting as “firs” (in English translation, I do not know the German original). They are in fact spruces, as are the conifers in the next two paintings I analyze. The confusion of spruces with firs or pines is common in the literature on Friedrich.

15 Note that as a tabula rasa one could not understand any object in a painting. As Aristotle writes in the Poetics, “men enjoy looking at images, because what happens is that, as they contemplate them, they apply their understanding and reasoning to each element (identifying this as an image of such-and-such a man, for instance). Since, if it happens that one has no previous familiarity with the sight, then the object will not give pleasure qua mimetic object but because of its craftsmanship, or colour, or for some other such reason.” Stephen Halliwell, The Poetics of Aristotle (London: Duckworth, 1987), p. 34 (Poetics, ch. 4).

16 Quoted in Schmied, Friedrich, p. 46. I have slightly modified the punctuation of this quote.

17 Ibid., p. 87.

18 Quoted in ibid., p. 20.

19 Quoted in Hofmann, Friedrich, pp. 278–79.

20 Quoted in Schmied, Friedrich, p. 46.

21 Quoted in William Vaughan, Friedrich (New York: Phaidon Press, 2004), p. 193.

22 Quoted in Schmied, Friedrich, p. 46.

23 I discuss some other artists whose works bear the same hallmark in my note “Some Romantic Artists” on my website: