Turner to Monet
Two men on a hillside, standing on a stony outcrop, look at the crescent moon shining in a luminous sky. Framed between a strong, sinuous oak and an angular, spiky pine, the younger man leans on his companion’s shoulder, as though overcome by beauty. These are not detached scientific observers scrutinising a lunar phenomenon, but witnesses of God’s ever-surprising Nature. Instead of that scientific examination of natural phenomena so characteristic of German learning at the time, Friedrich’s painting is a parable of Christianity and paganism. The oak, used for heathen rituals, is dying; the evergreen pine, a symbol of Christianity, lives. The men are protected underneath its branches.
Friedrich painted several versions of this scene, similar in composition although varying in character. The earliest known dates from 1819, another of a man and woman was made c. 1824, and at least two more were painted about 1830.1Friedrich’s friend Dahl refers to later versions by the artist and others in a letter of 26 September 1840, at the time he donated the 1819 painting to the Dresden Gemäldegalerie in memory of Friedrich:
This picture, full of sentiment and the quietness of nature, was painted by Friedrich in 1819 and he gave it to me in exchange for one of my own works. Friedrich had to copy it several times, but he did not approve of this, hence others copied it as well.2
While there is some disagreement about this version, close examination reveals Friedrich’s blue underdrawing, a generous execution, and liberal and unique application of colour.3The characteristic freedom of the artist’s hand can be seen here, with the silhouette of a dead branch on the right, jutting from a large rock – a pagan dolmen – which seems to buttress the old oak tree. A sawn stump on the left testifies to human life cut short while new vegetation, representing a growing Christianity, appears in a line of young pines on the right.
Friedrich’s earlier works often show a lone hero in the landscape. A pair of figures now become part of the artist’s repertoire, to symbolise friendship. They wear German national dress; the cloak and hat signalled opposition to the French invasions under Napoleon, and they were still popular signs of dissent against later reactionary German governments under Metternich. The men have been identified as Friedrich, leaning on a walking stick, and his pupil, August Heinrich (1794–1822), who died of consumption. It is touching the way the younger leans upon the older man, rather than the conventional reverse.
Friedrich captures the temporary and evanescent effects of this expedition to watch the moon and Venus, a strange phenomenon counterpoising the effects of light and darkness. The moon-filled sky is pale and glowing, denying blackness as the moon’s natural element. The material world is dark, outlined against the eerie heavens.
1 The 1819 painting is in the Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden. A version made c. 1824, depicting the artist and his wife Caroline is in the National Galerie, Berlin. A c. 1830 version is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; this 1830s version is held in the Galerie Hans, Hamburg.
2Letter to the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, Sächsische Hauptarchiv, cited in Helmut Börsch-Supan and Karl Wilhelm Jähnig, Caspar David Friedrich: Gemälde, Druckgraphik und bildmässige Zeichnungen, Munich: Prestel, 1973, p. 216, note 34.
3 Because of its spontaneity and breadth of handling, and original variations on the other versions, this painting is unlikely to be a copy by another artist. Copyists are notoriously careful in their imitation, and all too accurate in their replication. This version is attributed to Friedrich by Werner Sumowski 1969, 1971, 1975 and by Jens Christian Jensen 1999, refuting Helmut Börsch-Supan and Karl Wilhelm Jähnig 1973, who attribute it to a copyist, perhaps Julius Leypold.