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Monk by the Sea

Caspar David Friedrich1808/1810

Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Friedrich worked for two years on this, ultimately his most famous work. The composition is divided horizontally into land, sea, and sky with a clear simplicity that shocked his contemporaries. A monk stands, bareheaded, on the shore. Seagulls circle around him. The lonely figure faces the leaden blackness of the immeasurably vast sea. The grey band of cloud over the water surprisingly gives way to blue sky along the top edge of the picture. No artistic composition had ever been as uncompromising as this: the main space of the picture seems like an abyss of some kind; there are no boundaries, there is nothing to hold on to, just a sense of floating between night and day, between despair and hope. In 1810 Heinrich von Kleist put into words, as no other could, the magical fascination of this painting: “Nothing could be more sombre nor more disquieting than to be placed thus in the world: the one sign of life in the immensity of the kingdom of death, the lonely center of a lonely circle. With its two or three mysterious objects the picture seems somehow apocalyptic, like Young’s Night Thoughts, and since its monotony and boundlessness are only contained by the frame itself, contemplation of this picture gives one the sense that one’s eyelids have been cut away.”

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Details

  • Title: Monk by the Sea
  • Creator: Caspar David Friedrich
  • Date Created: 1808/1810
  • Physical Dimensions: w171.5 x h110.0 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Technique and material: Oil on canvas
  • Inv.-No.: NG 9/85
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-815114
  • External link: Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Prestel Verlag / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: © b p k - Photo Agency / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Andres Kilger
  • Collection: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Artist biography: Caspar David Friedrich was the most important German painter and draughtsman of the early Romantic period. He started his artistic training in 1790 when he became a private student of Johann Gottfried Quistorp in Greifswald. In 1794 he entered the Academy of Copenhagen where he formed his style copying antique sculptures. During this period he served as an apprentice under Christian August Lorentzen and Jens Juel. These artists were exponents of the Sturm und Drang movement which was characterized by individual subjectivity and heightened emotionality. Friedrich settled in Dresden, where he worked in printmaking with etchings and layouts for woodcuts, later turning to watercolours, ink and sepias. From 1801 he made frequent trips to the Baltic coast and various German mountains, drawing inspiration for a number of landscape paintings which soon became his favourite subject. Friedrich won a competition, set up by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar in 1805, with his sepia drawings 'Procession at Dawn' and 'Fisher-Folk by the Sea'. He also gained recognition for being the first artist to depict a landscape in an altarpiece, with 'The Cross in the Mountains' (1807) becoming one of his most important artworks. In 1810 he was appointed a member of the Berlin Academy. He was held in high esteem even as far away as Russia, by the Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich and the tutor to Alexander II, Vasily Zhukovsky, who supported him by purchasing works himself and recommending him to other nobles. Friedrich’s prestige decreased over the last years of his life when he lived in relative poverty, making him dependent on the charity of friends. Among them were a number of important artists such as Philipp Otto Runge, Georg Friedrich Kersting and Christian Dahl. Friedrich’s compositions are characterized by metaphysical transcendence. His main subjects were landscapes and he forged a new way of depicting nature: often using a ‘back figure’, whereby a figure contemplating the view is seen from behind. His landscapes widely present religious topics, while his winter landscapes show a raw and powerful side to nature of a kind never depicted before. It is purely thanks to Friedrich and other Romantic painters that the genre of landscape painting holds such an important status within Western art as a whole. Among his most famous works are 'The Wanderer above the Mists' (1818), 'Chalk Cliffs on Rügen' (1818), 'The Abbey in the Oakwood' (1808–10) and 'Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon' (1830–35).
  • Artist Place of Death: Dresden, Germany
  • Artist Place of Birth: Greifswald, Germany
  • Artist Dates: 1774-09-05/1840-05-07

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