Caspar David Friedrich - Monk by the Sea

by Alexandra Tuschka


"And wouldst thou also sow from morning till evening, from evening till sinking midnight, yet wouldst thou not conceive, not fathom, the inscrutable beyond." (Friedrich, February 1809)


The "Beyond" - this is the place to which Caspar David Friedrich lost many of his loved ones. One of his brothers, Johann Christoffer, gave his life to save him. When both boys were about 12 to 14 years old, they went ice skating. Caspar David collapsed on the ice, his brother saved him but did not survive. Now, in 1808, the year the painting was created, the painter also had to let his beloved sister Dorothea go. Only four of the nine siblings are still alive, the mother is also long dead. His father Adolph Gottlieb Friedrich died less than a year later. How does a person cope with that? What gives a person stability? Caspar David Friedrich was a believer, a man deeply attached to nature and his homeland, who often explored the landscapes of Germany on foot and found support in them. Friedrich had his problems with women, married late, then had children.

His paintings often testify to a romanticism of nature, the insignificance of man in the great cycle of life. His back figures are invitations to identification, but also an expression of the absolute interchangeability of the individual. This work expresses this statement in its purest form. On an undefined beach, perhaps Baltic Sea, but actually everywhere, we feel the rough wind, we can already hear the seagulls screaming, in the distance the sky darkens, the sea is almost black. The picture section seems arbitrary, right and left at the edges it could go on forever. Only a person standing on the beach, wrapped in a long coat, breaks through the horizontals. He has folded his hands devoutly, perhaps in prayer. This person turns a painting, which without him seems almost abstract, into a deeply meditative one. If you remove the man from the scene, the theme of the picture becomes abstract, and seems almost modern.

Here is not necessarily a "monk" is seen, as the official title of the picture leads us to believe. It is rare, but to this work Frederick himself has commented and speaks here only of a "man". The quote chosen at the beginning also comes from this period and testifies to Frederick's preoccupation with life and death. The man depicted here could also be immediately wiped away by time, the beach, the sea, the sky - they would take no notice. A new generation of seagulls would let loose the eternally same cries.


This work is to be understood with its counterpart, with which it was shown at the Berlin Academy Exhibition in the fall of 1810: the "Abbey in the Oak Forest". Both works have identical dimensions. In this painting, a group of monks is seen in procession. Following the coffin, the view leads into the interior of the picture, where the open ruined portal leads the men to the monastery cemetery. Frederick himself describes in a letter: "Beneath snow-covered tombs and burial mounds stand the remains of a gothic church surrounded by ancient oaks. The sun has set, and in the twilight, standing above the ruins, shines the evening star and the moon's quarter. Thick fog covers the earth, and while one can still clearly see the upper part of the ruins, the shapes become more and more uncertain and indeterminate towards the bottom, until finally everything is lost in the fog the closer one gets to the earth. The oaks stretch their arms upward out of the mist, while below they have already completely disappeared."

To what extent both pictures can be related to each other in terms of content is the subject of research. It could be that they relate to each other in time. Possibly our man at the sea is to be seen in the coffin. Some scholars even assume that Frederick staged his own funeral here.


At the exhibition, reactions were mixed. On the one hand, the visual habit was very irritated, as evidenced by many contemporary testimonies. Helene von Kügelgen, for example, said: "On the eternal surface of the sea, one sees no boat, no ship, not even a sea monster, and in the sand not even a green stalk. Only a few seagulls flutter around, making the solitude even more lonely and gruesome." - On the other hand, the motifs inevitably touched many viewers. Carl Gustav Carus described the work in 1825 as "perhaps the most profoundly poetic work of art in all new landscape painting." Then as now, the painting evokes a deep melancholy and longing in many viewers, which is why "Monk by the Sea" is one of Friedrich's most famous and popular paintings.


At the urging of the 15-year-old Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia, the Prussian king acquired the work at the exhibition. Through this recognition, Friedrich also achieved a high reputation, which also had a positive influence on his being appointed a member of the Berlin Academy on Nov. 12, 1810, shortly after the exhibition.


Caspar David Friedrich - Monk by the Sea

Oil on canvas, 1819/1820, 110 x 171 cm, National Gallery, Berlin


Caspar David Friedrich - Abbey in the Oak Forest

Oil on canvas, 1819/1820, 110 x 171 cm, National Gallery, Berlin