Caspar David Friedrich

Portrait of Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich was a German Romantic landscape painter. He is often regarded as the most important artist of his generation. He was born in Greifswald on 5th September 1774 and died in Dresden, Germany on 7th May 1840 aged 65.

Major Works

“Morning Mist in the Mountains” (1808)
“The Monk by the Sea” (1808-10).
“The Abbey in the Oak Wood” (1808-10)
“Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (1818)
“On the Sailing Boat” (1819)
“Morning” (1820-2)
“The Sea of Ice” (1823-24)

Biography Timeline

Caspar David Friedrich was born on 5th September 1774, in Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania, Germany. His father Adolf Gottlieb Friedrich a candle maker and strict Lutheran and his mother was called Sophie. He was the sixth of ten children.

1781: His mother dies when he is aged seven.

1782: His sister Elisabeth dies. 

1787: His brother Johann Christoffer dies tragically aged thirteen when he falls through a frozen lake, watched by Caspar.

1790: He begins his formal art study as a private student of Johann Gottfried Quistorp at the University of Greifswald. He is encouraged to draw from life on their trips into the countryside. He meets the theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten who taught that nature was a revelation of God. He also studies aesthetics with Thomas Thorild.

1791: His sister Maria dies of typhus. 

1794: He attends the Copenhagen Academy a progressive art school and is taught by Christian August Lorentzen and the landscape painter Jens Juel. The Academy does not teach painting nevertheless he spends his time doing life drawing and making copies of classical sculptures. He frequently visits the collection of Dutch masters in the Royal Picture Gallery.

1797: He paints “Landscape with Temple in Ruins” in oils which was not currently his main medium.

1798: After leaving the Academy he settles in Dresden in Germany. At this period, he is chiefly making prints and woodcuts which are not sold but given to friends. Among the people he meets there are his fellow painter Phillip Otto Runge and the writers Novalis and Ludwig Tieck.

1799: He suffers the first of his severe depressive episodes, which reoccur in 1803,1816 and 1824 to 1826.

1801: He makes frequent trips to the Baltic coast and the Harz Mountains and makes paintings of landscape themes based on a close observation of nature mainly using inks and watercolour.

1805: His sepia drawings including “Procession at Dawn and Fisher-Folk by the Sea” win half of the prize from the Weimar Art Society and are praised by the poet and organiser Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

1808: His first important oil painting is “Cross in the Mountains” (sometimes called the Tetschen Altarpiece) which emphasise his themes of loneliness and isolation. It was commissioned for a family chapel on Tetschen, Bohermia. The art critic Basilius von Ramdohr complains about Friedrich’s use of landscape in a religious context, as it was then thought an inferior form but his friends rally around and defend him.

1809: He paints “The Abbey in the Oakwood”.

1810: The Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences show “The Abbey in the Oakwood” beneath his “The Monk by the Sea” at his insistence. The Crown Prince of Prussia buys two of his works and this cements his reputation and he is elected to the Academy in Berlin.

1812: He is impressed by the anti-Napoleonic poetry of Ernst Moritz Arndt and Theodor Korner and the patriotic writings of Adam Muller and is also shocked by the deaths of three friends killed in the war against France. He begins a series of paintings on political themes using landscape for his symbolism. One such “Old Heroes Graves” shows a monument to the old German hero Arminius next to four tombs of fallen soldiers.

1813: The French army occupy Pomerania. His painting “Fir Forest with the French Dragoon and the Raven” shows a lost French soldier dwarfed by the forest, whilst a raven (the symbol of doom) sits on a tree stump prophesying the hoped for defeat of France.

1816: In June he applies for Saxon citizenship seeking to distance himself from the Prussian authorities. This surprises people as the Saxon government are pro-French. However, he is granted citizenship with the help of his friend Graf Vitzthum von Eckstädt in Dresden.

1818: On 21st January Friedrich marries Caroline Bommer, aged 25, the daughter of a dyer in Dresden. He is granted membership of the Saxon Academy with comes with a yearly allowance. He was actually hoping for a full professorship but the authorities thought his work too idiosyncratic to be of use to students. He paints “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” his most famous work in modern times.

1819: He paints “Two Men Contemplating the Moon”.

1820: Their daughter Emma is born (the first of their three children). Alexandra Feodorovna the wife of The Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich of Russia asks him to visit Friedrich’s studio and he buys several paintings. He will buy many more in later years. By this time Friedrich is living as a recluse, not even keeping up with his friends.

1821: Vasily Zhukovsky, tutor to the Grand Duke’s son (later to become Tsar Alexander the Third) visits Friedrich in his studio and recommends works to be bought by other members of the Russian Royal Family which bring much needed money. Johan Christian Clausen Dahl becomes a close friend and despairs that the majority of the public only buy his works as curiosities missing the mystical qualities entirely and his skill in the faithful representation of the natural world.

1822:  He paints the “Raven Tree”.

1823: He paints “The Sea of Ice” (also called “The Wreck of the Hope”) about Sir William Parry’s polar expedition.

1824: He is appointed as a professor of the Royal Dresden Art Academy and paints “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon”.

1835: In June he suffers a stroke and never really recovers his full ability to paint. He is now limited to working in watercolour and sepia. His final major paintings are “Seashore by Moonlight” and “Willow Bush under a Setting Sun”. The Russian Royal Family purchase a number of his earlier works which enables him to travel to Teplitz (now Czechia) to recuperate.

1837: He suffers a second stroke causing almost complete paralysis and sadly his reputation as an artist is now beginning to wane.

1838: He and his family are now living in poverty and relying on the charity of friends. 

Caspar David Friedrich died on 7th May 1840 in Dresden, Saxony and was buried in the Trinitatis-Friedhof (Trinity Cemetery) east of the city centre.


In art Friedrich was influenced by Claude-Joseph Vernet, Caspar Wolf, Philip James de Loutherbourg and Henry Fuseli. He also read the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in great depth and was influenced by his ideas of infusing manner into landscape painting. i.e creating an art that connects the soul with the painted image. He was one of the first to make landscape painting a major genre in its own right in western art.

In turn later painters such as Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857) and Arnold Bocklin were strongly influenced by his style. As many of his paintings were collected by the Russian state, he influenced several Russian painters such as Arkhip Kuindzhi (c1842–1910) and Ivan Shishkin (1832–1898). In America his spiritual style appealed to Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), Ralph Blakelock (1847–1919) and the Hudson River School.

In the twentieth century the Norwegian art historian Andreas Aubert (1851–1913) instigated a new Friedrich scholarship which appealed to Symbolist artists such as Edvard Munch (1863–1944) who saw his works in Berlin. His landscapes were popular with the German Max Ernst (1891–1976) and several other Surrealists came to view him as one of their precursors. Rene Magritte’s “The Human Condition” in 1934 echoes themes from Friedrich. A 1939 article in the Surrealist journal “Minotaure” gave him wider coverage. Paul Nash (1889–1946) came to see his works via Max Ernst and several other artists of the century claimed a debt to him such as Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Gerhard Richter (b1932) and Anselm Kiefer (b1945).  

In literature Samuel Becket (1906–89), acknowledged Friedrich’s “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” as his source for the play “Waiting for Godot”.

Further Information

Examples of paintings by Friedrich.

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