Friedrich is among the greatest of those Romantic artists in whose work spiritual yearning is the dominant theme. A close literary counterpart to his landscapes, in which sharply observed detail is laden with metaphorical or symbolic meaning, is the work of the English nature-poet William Wordsworth. Both epitomized an international trend in the years around 1800 to contemplate the state of nature, as opposed to the “civilized” states of humankind, for revelations about basic and eternal truths.
In this late painting, the artist observed a mountain wilderness with what appears to be photographic precision. Like all Friedrich’s works, however, this ostensibly ordinary scene is also open to interpretation as a spiritual text. While the rendition of the drifting clouds suggests a naturalist’s awareness of meteorology, Friedrich almost certainly saw in them a symbolic meaning; veiling the distance and casting shadows across the landscape, they are an image of the shifting, imperfect conditions that nature provides for the illumination of the spirit. In the foreground a toppled tree is portrayed in matter-of-fact detail. It may symbolize mortality as a barrier to spiritual progress: according to some interpretations of Scripture, nature only became subject to death when the Fall of humankind corrupted the originally blissful landscape of Eden. Even the leafless evergreens in the middle distance (trees often understood as premonitions of eternity, given their relative immunity to seasonal change) bear witness to death. Finally, far off in the distance, as if in a separate realm all but inaccessible to human striving, Friedrich includes a fortresslike mountain peak––a revelation, perhaps, of the possibility of salvation.
Acquired by the Kimbell in 1984, Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds was the first painting by Friedrich to enter a public collection outside of Europe.