Caspar David Friedrich's Winter Landscape

On the meditative power of mystery and ambiguity
Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape (1811?)
On a recent trip to London, I came across Caspar David Friedrich's painting Winter Landscape at the National Gallery. I was struck most of all by the disparity between the painting's small frame (32.5 x 45 cm) and the immensity of its subject matter. Dwarfed by many of the works around it, Friedrich's meticulous piece suggested the meditative power of a small and humble scene.

The work depicts a desolate landscape where a cluster of trees, dusted with snow, remain green in the depths of winter. Among the trees is a wooden sculpture of the crucifixion, and, if we look closely, a man can be seen praying before it. Clues in the foreground lead us towards him, crutches he has abandoned, either in haste or humility. He is the only human being in the painting, and we can assume that he is some kind of traveller wandering through a wilderness.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the painting is the vague symmetry that exists between the trees that tower over the human form, and a tall cathedral structure that is appearing out of the mist. The caption at the National Gallery suggests that the cathedral could symbolise the afterlife, a state of peace and calm that awaits the devout traveller. What interests me more is the unstable status of the cathedral itself. For example, can we assume that the traveller held the building as his final destination? His path, marked by the crutches, certainly suggest that direction. Or, is the cathedral a figment of the traveller's imagination? Maybe it is a figment of our imagination as viewers? Its status remains uncertain. The cathedral remains shrouded, hovering in the distance, neither fully present nor completely absent.

Let us assume, for a moment, that the cathedral is imagined. If this is the case, then the traveller remains far from his destination, even lost. The title, Winter Landscape, becomes an apt description of the traveller's hopeless situation. As a result, the trees become the only sign of life or rejuvenation among the rocks, ice and snow. In this reading, the traveller's meditative state conjures a mystical sense that sanctuary remains close at hand. He is at home anywhere, when at prayer, no matter how remote or isolated his location.

While I do not consider myself religious in any traditional or conventional sense, I remain fascinated by the role that religion plays in the development of literature, philosophy, and the visual arts. Friedrich's Winter Landscape certainly draws upon religious themes, but I think it can be appreciated regardless of one's theological attitudes. It prompts us to ask broader questions about the human condition. What is our place in the world? To what degree are we all, in some way, solitary creatures? What role does prayer, meditation or deep reflection play in a meaningful life? How do we create meaning? What is the role and importance of faith in ideas or beliefs?

While the painting might have been intended to perform a didactic function, where there is a clear lesson to be learned, I think it's strength lies in its mystery and ambiguity: those aspects of the painting's narrative that remain inscrutable, no matter how hard we look.

In researching the painting, I discovered that it is the only example of Friedrich's work that is publicly available in London, and that it is one of two copies that exist in the world. London's National Gallery, naturally curious, wanted to find out if their copy was the original:
Discovered in a private collection in 1982, Friedrich’s moody Winter Landscape was acquired by the National Gallery five years later. The painting appeared identical in nearly every respect to a version that had been in the Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Dortmund since 1940. Yet only one version of the composition was recorded in 19th-century documents, so which painting was the original?

Identical or not?

Although the two paintings appear at first glance to be identical, there are minute details in the London painting that do not appear in the Dortmund picture. The most noticeable are the gateway in front of the church and the blades of grass poking through the melting snow in the foreground.

The distant church is rendered with exceptional clarity and detail in the London painting, comparable to similar structures in other works by Friedrich. The same feature in the Dortmund version is little more than a hazy silhouette, with no discernable architectural features. While the Dortmund painting is rendered with a broad, spontaneous touch, the precise, controlled handling of the Gallery’s work in fact relates more closely to Friedrich’s early style of painting. [Read More]

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