Northern Landscape, Spring is the first oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) or by any artist of the German romantic school—to enter the collections of the National Gallery of Art. It joins a superb pen and sepia wash drawing by Friedrich, Moonrise on an Empty Shore, 1837/1839, acquired in 1992.
Friedrich was the most important landscape painter working in northern continental Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in the Pomeranian harbor town of Greifswald on the Baltic coast of Germany. His main artistic education took place across the Baltic Sea in Copenhagen, where he studied from 1794 to 1798 at the Royal Danish Academy, the principal art school for the region. There Friedrich learned his delicate and precise manner of painting, and developed his clear and economical type of composition. He also absorbed the current enthusiasm for the history and mythology of Scandinavia and Germany, which was an important feature of a self-consciously "northern" sensibility developing among northern writers, philosophers, and artists. They were increasingly resistant to the dominance of French and Italianate culture in the eighteenth century. With the expansion of the French empire under Napoléon Bonaparte, particularly his invasion of German states, in the first two decades of the century, this northern European cultural allegiance was reinforced, taking on patriotic, even nationalistic resonance.
After a brief stay in Berlin in 1798, Friedrich settled in Dresden in the kingdom of Saxony. Except for visits to central and northern Germany, and to Bohemia, he remained in Dresden for the rest of his life. He devoted himself to landscape painting, sometimes incorporating contemplative figures.
Friedrich's attitude to nature, shared by a circle of romantic writers, philosophers, and other artists, in Dresden, was a spiritual one. Under the influence of Pietism—which was resistant to conventional Lutheran worship service and observation of the sacraments, for example—a pantheistic attitude prevailed, in which God was believed to manifest himself in the natural world. Thus the contemplation of nature –as expressed in the depiction of landscape—was a kind of devotion. Friedrich's early paintings frequently contain overt religious symbols, such as crosses or Gothic churches rising through a northern mist. But references to the realm of the spirit, to the transience of life, to death, and to rebirth, become increasingly implicit rather than explicit in his landscapes.
Northern Landscape, Spring is a perfect example of Friedrich's later approach to landscape painting. On one level it is simply a bleak winter landscape of a decidedly "northern" character. He studied nature meticulously through drawing during excursions outdoors, which gave him an intense awareness of nature's changing moods. But his painted landscapes were created in the studio, invented in his imagination, albeit based on his empirical experience of nature. "The artist," he once said, "should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him." Northern Landscape, Spring is a sensitive imagining of a cold winter's day on a desolate heathland, frozen snow lying crisp on the ground, with distant mountains seen through a mist. Across a frozen lake or river, two tiny figures, perhaps huntsmen, are dwarfed into insignificance by the vast expanse of untrammeled nature. We can understand the observation of the French sculptor David d'Angers (1788-1856), who, after a visit to Friedrich in Dresden, described him as "the man who discovered the tragedy of landscape." However, a subtly suggested glimmer of light in the sky suggests that the time of day may be dawn. Moreover, the "spring" of the title refers to the first blades of grass pushing through the snow in the foreground. Thus, for all that this place seems bleak and unwelcoming, there are suggestion of hope and rebirth inherent in the drama of nature itself.
Northern Landscape, Spring is a highly refined painting, subtle in its light, its cool tonalities, and its beautifully articulated sense of frosty space. It is exquisite in the variety of its painterly handling, from the delicate shroud of mist in the distance, to the blades of grass pushing through the drifts of snow in the foreground, which are executed in a more brushy technique. The starkness and emptiness of the composition, and the austerity and restraint of Friedrich's palette, however, are radical features for a painting of this early date.
(Estate sale, Munich, 2003, as by an anonymous artist); private collection, Germany; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 15 June 2004, no. 26); (French & Company, Inc., New York); purchased 20 October 2004 by NGA.
- Caspar David Friedrich. Die Erfindung der Romantik [Casper David Friedrich. The Invention of Romance], Museum Folkwang, Essen; Hamburger Kunsthalle, 2006-2007, no. 259, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Doyle, Margaret M. "A Friedrich for the National Gallery of Art, Washington." The Burlington Magazine 148 (February 2006): 109-112, repro.
- Grummt, Christina. Caspar David Friedrich: Die Zeichnungen, Das gesamte Werk. 2 vols. Munich, 2011: ADD VOL ADD PAGE ADD ILL.
- Grave, Johannes. Caspar David Friedrich. Translated by Fiona Elliott. Munich, 2012: 24, 27, color fig. 11.
- Kennicott, Philip. "French Rooms Reopen, With Different Accents." Washington Post 135, no. 55 (January 29, 2012): E25.