I spent my junior year of college in the beautiful town of Tübingen, in what was then West Germany. My roommate, Monika, was majoring in art history and at one point in the fall of that academic year she was working on a term paper about the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). She waxed rhapsodic about the man and his art; I had never heard of him. I don’t recall looking through any of her art books to any extent; if I did, they didn’t make a strong impression.
Nine years later, while in Chicago, I visited the Art Institute. As it happened, my visit coincided with the first day of a special exhibition called The Romantic Vision of Caspar David Friedrich: Paintings and Drawings from the U.S.S.R. This was the first ever exhibit in the United States to be specifically devoted to the works of Friedrich. At the time, there was only one painting by Friedrich in an American museum (the Kimbell, in Fort Worth). Most of his work resides in museums in Germany, but Russia–specifically the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow–also has a major collection. It was from these two institutions that the works for the Chicago show were chosen. After taking in the exhibit, I understood Monika’s enthusiasm.
My favorite painting in the exhibit–and probably my favorite by Friedrich overall–is this one, called On The Sailboat. I love the luminous sky, the blue of the man’s coat, the rose of the woman’s dress, the fact that they’re holding hands. (Friedrich had married not long before starting work on this painting, and many feel it’s a representation of a sailing trip he made along the Baltic coast with his new wife). Above all, I love the fact that, because of the perspective Friedrich has chosen to depict, I feel that I’m on the boat with this couple, and I see what they see: the approach of a city that shimmers on the horizon. It makes me feel hopeful, and fills me with a sense of possibility.
Here’s what the late Robert Rosenblum, a curator and art historian, wrote in an essay in the exhibition catalogue: “[One] of the abiding marvels of Friedrich’s genius [was] his ability to depict an awesomely still, silent, and unbounded void that seems to radiate from the vantage point of a lone viewer into territories of space and emotion no longer chartable by rational means. For Friedrich, all earthly paths, whether humble or exalted, lead to the unknown.”