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Looking into the Beyond

schwartz_2-060911.jpg
Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen
Wilhelm Bendz: Interior from Amaliegade with the Artist’s Brothers, 12 3/4 x 19 1/4 inches, circa 1829

The drawings may have startled the artist as much as they do us. Caspar David Friedrich: Das gesamte graphische Werk, a nearly eight-hundred-page compendium of his work on paper, shows that, before he made these sepia drawings, windows had never been a subject for him. He had rarely used his materials with the same particularly controlled density of application, or been so photographically precise in his rendering of a subject. Essentially a landscapist with a moralistic and religious bent, and a classicist in his affinity for design and balance, Friedrich seems never to have taken immediate, contemporary existence as a subject before, either, and except for one more window drawing done decades later, and the little 1822 painting in the Met’s show of a woman before another waterside window, he apparently didn’t touch the subject again. (He made less than a handful of paintings of interiors, with or without windows, all told.) Like his very few, and amazing, self-portrait drawings, which can have a similar high-focused intensity, the theme was one that he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go further with. Indirectly, though, I think he did.

Sabine Rewald writes that the open window, as Friedrich and some of her other artists saw it, is about “yearning” and “unfulfilled longing,” and surely this is right. But on another level the subject, for Friedrich, may have been about a need to extend and deepen his work. Along with his close contemporaries Constable and Turner, Friedrich gave to landscape painting a power and sense of self-sufficiency that European art had not seen since Jacob van Ruisdael, in the 1600s. But where Constable and Turner embrace the natural world so fully in their different ways as to wind up with pictures that are like structureless inundations of wetness and wind, Friedrich—besides always painting and drawing terrains and atmospheres with a greater daintiness and compositional lucidity—was essentially a more psychological artist.

As his window drawings make clear, Friedrich’s deepest subject was not the force and pageant of nature but our response to it—how we literally approach the world outside ourselves—and it took him years to find a way to express this most fully. He did so in his use of figures with their backs to us, looking into the scene that we viewers see over their shoulders. He wasn’t, of course, the first artist to show the figure this way, but few made it seem so inherently right. He began doing it with some consistency and real inventiveness roughly from 1818, when he was in his mid-forties and, much to the amazement of his friends, who saw him as a lifelong solitary, finally got married. His wife, Caroline Bommer, is very possibly the woman with her hair up who we see so often in these later pictures, and when she is with a man the figure is probably Friedrich himself.

His paintings with onlookers, which are a blend of landscape and figure painting, are not great in number, and they are not always necessarily finer than his straight landscapes. Yet it is in his pictures with people looking out to sea, or toward a harbor, or on nighttime walks, that Friedrich fully dramatized his sense of the natural world. The clothes his people wear, it has been noted, are slightly out of date, but to our eyes his high-collared women and floppy-hatted men are stylish enough, and their urban, day-tripper presence makes Friedrich’s art into more than a private meditation. With his travelers, he seems to be following through on the promise of his sepia window drawings, the only other works in which he captured the texture and appearance of his own actual Dresden life.

There is thus a special appropriateness in Friedrich’s returning to this motif in his 1822 painting of a woman, who we know is Caroline, before a window. It is as if the artist were acknowledging the link between the sepia drawings he had made almost twenty years earlier and his new pictures with onlookers, which seem to owe much to Caroline. The painting, where her body shifts delicately to one side, is a sweet-spirited masterpiece. It may not set off in us as many feelings as his early window drawings do, but then few artworks of any era do.

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