Martin Johnson HEADE  
United States of America 1819 � 1904-09-04  
Sunlight and shadow: the Newbury Marshes c.1871-75, oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Wilmerding Collection (Promised Gift). Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Caspar FRIEDRICH | Scudding clouds [Ziehende Wolken]

Germany 1774 – Germany 1840
Scudding clouds
[Ziehende Wolken]
[Ziehende Wolken]
oil on canvas
18.3 (h) x 24.5 (w) cm
frame 29.5 (h) x 35.0 (w) x 6.5 (d) cm
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
© bpk / Hamburger Kunsthalle / Elke Walford
VIEW: Article |
Turner to Monet

Friedrich painted his canvases in different, standard sizes. The format of Scudding clouds was the smallest he used, in the Saxon measure 8 Zoll high and 10½ Zoll wide. A letter of 21 July 1821 to the collector Dr Wilhelm Körte gave the price as ‘4 Louisdor’, or French gold coins.1 For such a tiny painting, with its palette restricted to white, blue, green and brown, the artist achieves a large impact, both intellectually and visually.

Scudding clouds ‘is based on a study from nature showing a view from the Brocken, which he made on 29 June 1811’.2 The ten years that passed between Friedrich’s original plein-air excursion and the finished painting demonstrate how the artist thought and rethought his conceptions of religious art. By 1820 a physical, material Christian cross was no longer needed to signal our inevitable spiritual journey through the landscape. The Brocken is the highest peak of the Harz mountains, and thus the highest in northern Germany. Here Friedrich shows a mountaintop where a small lake reflects the sky. Beyond the grass is an invisible valley that we look straight across to distant ranges. Far beyond the obstacle of mountains, obscuring clouds or mists, lies a sunlit vista. For the traveller – the artist, the viewer – to achieve this heaven, he or she must:

… climb all the way down through the valley of death before he can reach this paradise which he can just glimpse vaguely through the clouds. The rocks in the foreground symbolize the Christian faith.3

Scudding clouds is a painting of great intensity, concentrated into a small space. Even the title is ambiguous, since Friedrich’s intent is surely to show the arduous journey from ordinary, sensuous human life to eternal salvation. Ziehen in German means ‘to pull’. The clouds scud or drift across the canvas: accurate translation depends on how fast they appear to move. Fluffy mist in the mountains becomes little white billows of cloud, then a grey curtain across the top of the painting. The whole is composed of horizontal fields of colour. Normal recession, from brown and green foreground to misty blue mountains, is contradicted by clouds that move through the scene, obscuring those peaks and valleys where the traveller must venture.

Christine Dixon

1Sigrid Hinz (ed.), Caspar David Friedrich in Briefen und Bekenntnissen, Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1968, p. 55, quoted in Caspar David Friedrich 1774–1840, Munich: Prestel and Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1974, p. 241.

2 Helmut Börsch-Supan, Caspar David Friedrich, London: Thames and Hudson, 1973, p. 124.

3 Börsch-Supan, p. 124.