Caspar David Friedrich - Mountain Landscape with Rainbow

by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers


A classic Caspar David Friedrich painting, which meets us, as usual for the artist, with quite a lot of power, romanticism and emotional tension. Quickly one is inclined to identify with the only person in the picture, has the urge to put himself in it, which is quite desired by the artist. As an aid to this, he shows the person, also as is usual in many of his works, in a back view and prevents individualization by not showing a face. But let's start at the beginning. 

The large-format work shows limited to a dark color palette the detail of a mountain landscape with lush flora. In the foreground, a clearing, apparently already at a considerable height, has been created by Caspar David Friedrich, which facilitates the viewer's "entry" into the picture. Following our gaze we come across the side view of a male figure, whose clothing has been laid out in extremely striking coloration. The man, dressed in white pants and a red shirt, with blond hair, is supposed to show the artist himself. Seemingly careless, he has placed his black hat on the ground to his left. He leans on a walking stick and holds his head turned away from the viewer in the direction of a wooded abyss, the depth of which cannot be estimated and which flows into a valley. As is characteristic of an abyss, it lends the image enormous depth, creating the possibility of multiple pictorial planes. Opposite this gorge, a single mountain dominates the center of the picture. Friedrich also chose this as the dominant motif in what is probably his most popular work, "Wanderer over the Sea of Fog," which was painted about ten years later than the present painting. Behind the mountain, which marks the center of the picture, further hills extend to the horizon. This is followed by a canopy of gray sky covered with dense clouds, which seems to open up only in a single small spot and which covers the entire scene. Across the painting from picture edge to picture edge Friedrich spanned finally a rainbow. A rainbow, although we are looking at a nocturnal scene? Very likely, Friedrich added the rainbow to the picture only afterwards, thus revealing its purely symbolic raison d'être. 


Thus we now mentally enter the symbolic world of the Romantic painter, which is decisive for said power and tension that confronts one in the first moment of contemplation. The rainbow traditionally stands for the reconciliation of God with mankind. The rock against which Frederick, depicted as a wanderer, leans stands for the support provided by the right faith. The abyss into which he looks, however, and into which our gaze is guided by the body language of the figure, or into which we look anyway if we have already taken the step of identifying ourselves with the person in the picture, symbolizes the dark strokes of fate that dwell in the shallows of the human soul. 


In the first moment it can be assumed that Frederick leans wearily on his walking stick out of physical exhaustion, because of the ascent. On closer inspection, however, it is just as possible that Frederick, so weighed down by the burden of his soul, is leaning on his walking stick. This thesis can be supported biographically. Shortly before the creation of this work, Caspar David Friedrich lost his beloved sister in 1809, who replaced his mother after her early death. There are moments like this in the life of almost everyone that make one doubt faith and trust in God. In the picture Frederick leans dangerously far away from the rock symbolizing faith, after having taken a deep look into his soul filled with sadness. Nevertheless, enthroned above all the rainbow draws the "happy ending" of this work and clarifies the deep conviction of the artist of the Christian faith and the help of God with which man can overcome strokes of fate.


Generalizing the interior of the artist in the painting, here he takes on the theme of reverence and respect of man for the divine, depicting the power of nature and the interaction of it with the human soul. Combined with such a melancholic power of identification, as a viewer, if you don't pay attention for a brief moment, a quiet sigh may escape you. In the next moment, however, you may think how human this reaction is and give yourself and the world a smile, because Caspar David Friedrich certainly did not want to pull down his viewers, at most perhaps their compassion and certainly give hope.


Caspar David Friedrich - Mountain Landscape with Rainbow

Oil on canvas, ca. 1810, 70 x 102cm, Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany

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