“Friedrich to Rothko” is the subtitle of a highly controversial study published in 1975 by the late art historian Robert Rosenblum. His survey Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko was based on the Slade Lectures he had given at Oxford in the spring of 1972. Rosenblum summarizes what he himself calls “the gist” of his ambitious argument by proposing “that there is an important, alternative reading of the history of modern art which might well supplement the orthodox one that has as its almost exclusive locus Paris, from David and Delacroix to Matisse and Picasso.” As signposts along this alternate view of modern art, Rosenblum proposes artists such as Van Gogh, Munch, and Hodler, all of whom he saw as exponents of an art for life’s sake, which is fundamentally different from what he sees as the art for art’s sake of those frivolous modernists. Extending this trajectory on both ends, he ends up with a conceptual arch that reaches from German Romanticism all the way to America’s Abstract Expressionism while avoiding the long-established modernist canon altogether—hence the book’s subtitle “Friedrich to Rothko.”
Needless to say, the critics pounced. Some were actually quite amusing—John Russell, for example, who started his (actually quite generous) review in the New York Times by relaying Kenneth Clark’s quip that publishing one’s lectures is “a well-known form of literary suicide.” Yet even the harshest and most scholarly critics did concede that Rosenblum was correct when pointing out that Friedrich’s contribution to modern art is of far greater importance than had previously been recognized.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), now considered the quintessential artist of German Romanticism, was pretty much forgotten during the latter part of the nineteenth century, even in his home country. One reason for this was undoubtedly the consistency with which he pursued an artistic vision that fell increasingly out of fashion. By the 1830s, German artists had begun to populate their landscapes with figures, preferably taken from biblical stories or medieval history. This new, anecdotal style came to dominate painting at the leading art academies in Düsseldorf and Munich. So, during the first decades of the twentieth century, when a comprehensive series of artists’ monographs were published with the imprimatur Klassiker der Kunst (Classics of Art), there were weighty tomes devoted to Moritz von Schwind, Hans Thoma, and Wilhelm Trübner (to name but a few of the nineteenth-century artists included in the series along with Dürer, Rembrandt, and Raphael), but none to Friedrich. This is even more surprising since by that time his rediscovery had already started, initiated by Hugo von Tschudi, who gave Friedrich pride of place in his seminal Jahrhundertausstellung Deutscher Kunst (Centennial Exhibition of GermanArt), held in Berlin’s Nationalgalerie und Neues Museum in 1906.
As a result of Friedrich’s posthumous eclipse, his works are rarely found outside of Germany. Only a handful of his paintings reside in American museums, all of them fairly recent acquisitions (the latest being the fine Sunburst in the Riesengebirge, illustrated above, which the Saint Louis Art Museum acquired in 2018). Even the Louvre bought its sole Friedrich painting only in 2000. While Friedrich was a highly prolific draftsman, a great majority of his works on paper are concentrated in large groups that mostly originate from the artist’s estate. Of the around 1,000 drawings listed in the comprehensive 2011 catalogue raisonné, just over 60 can be found in private hands—and hence appear only very occasionally on the market.
We therefore consider ourselves very fortunate to be able to offer a small watercolor that was previously virtually unknown—virtually, since the only documentation that existed was one of those infamously smudgy Xerox copies in our firm’s archive. It dated back to the early 1980s, when the work had been shown to us. After that, its whereabouts was unknown.
So, it was nice—and quite a change—to see it in all the splendor of its well preserved colors.
As he often did, the artist carefully dated the work “May 16, 1828,” which allows us to precisely reconstruct the circumstances of its creation. It was made during a short trip Friedrich made with an artist friend to Northern Bohemia. They stayed in Teplitz (today’s Teplice, in the Czech Republic), from where they ventured into the surrounding countryside. When they had to name the purpose of their trip in the town’s register, they wrote “Kunstreise, zufus,” which is best translated as “art hike, on foot”—try this at border control the next time you enter a foreign country!
The annotation at the lower right of the sheet is highly unusual. It reads
“Morgennebel” (morning fog, or mist) and is surely meant as a reminder of the time of day and the weather at the moment of the drawing’s execution. Yet it is also worth knowing that Friedrich made this trip following a time of severe illness. The Kunstreise might also, therefore, have had some therapeutic intent. For the iconologist hunting for hidden symbolism, the morning mist then becomes an expression of the artist’s hope that the rising morning sun will be able to dissolve the night’s lingering mist and bring on a new and better day.
Such a reading of the composition finds some support in other works from Friedrich’s later period. Many of them display a certain tendency to overdetermine the landscape scenery by including symbols such as crosses, anchors, lonely trees, owls, etc. Compared to these other later works, the small “Bildstock” (roadside cross) in the center of the middle ground of our watercolor is rather subtle. Emptiness itself seems to be its dominant subject. Even spatial depth is flatted out by superimposed bands of color, giving the composition as a whole a nearly abstract quality—exactly the quality that let Robert Rosenblum to construct the daring historical arch of his argument:
The boundless and haunting voids in such works by Friedrich prefigure the “static expanses of dematerialized, luminous color” that Rosenblum observes in the paintings of Mark Rothko. With this, too, one can easily quibble. But Rosenblum was far too sensitive a critic and too intelligent a historian to not be aware of his thesis’s limited weight-bearing capacity. I therefore want to give him the last word and leave you all with the question that he so brilliantly poses straight at the beginning of his book to preempt the expected criticism: “If these paintings look alike in their renunciation of almost everything but a somber, luminous void, is this merely an example of what Erwin Panofsky once called ‘pseudomorphosis,’ that is, the accidental appearance at different moments in the history of art of works whose close formal analogies falsify the fact that their meaning is totally different?” The 200 pages that follow set out to show otherwise and are, at least in my opinion, still worth reading.