Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818. (Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany) Oil on canvas. 98.4 x 74.8 cm. 

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is perhaps one of Caspar David Friedrich’s most recognizable paintings, and has become an emblem of German Romanticism in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, Germany had no centralized art institutions, as it was a patchwork of nations and kingdoms. Friedrich himself was very religious during his childhood and spent his formative years as an artist amid a strong tradition of topographical landscape painting. Within his paintings, Friedrich combines these two aspects. Recognizing what he saw as the obsolete nature of existing religious art, Friedrich’s conception of religious painting underwent a secular transformation. Within his pieces, and especially in The Wanderer, the empirically accurate transcription of mountains in Saxony and Bohemia still successfully convey a sense of transcendence and the infinite.

Friedrich also inserts an individual confrontation with the immensity of the infinite natural world, setting up a relationship between the jutting earth of the mountains, the soft fog, and the nebulous sky, bypassing the need for staid religious ritual and meditation (perhaps a reflection of his Protestant upbringing). Some have even called it a painting of Kantian self-reflection. In any case, by presenting the viewer with the individual’s back, we are invited to also inhabit the anonymous man’s, and Friedrich’s, point of view, and are encouraged to adopt this powerful yet simple philosophy for ourselves. 

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