Romanticism – Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808

Casper David Freidrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808
Casper David Freidrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808

I find this artwork hauntingly modern, even though it was painted over 200 years ago.

Monk by the Sea, exhibited in the Academy in Berlin in 1810, depicts a monk standing on the shore looking out to sea. The location has been identified as Rügen, an island off the north-east coast of Germany, a site Freidrich frequently painted.

The monk is positioned a little over a third of the way into the painting from the left, to a ratio of around 1:1.6, known as the golden ratio. However, there is little else about this painting that can be described as conventional.

The horizon line is unusually low and stretches uninterrupted from one end of the canvas to the other.

Friedrich uses colour and form to reveal the emotions of an individual at a time of great change and uncertainty.  The monk appears almost inconsequential – a small lone figure in dark attire. The deep blue sea is flecked with white, suggesting the threat of a storm. Above the monk, blue-grey clouds gather giving way in the highest part to a clearer, calmer blue.

The transition from the sea to the clouds achieved subtly through a technique called scumbling, in which one colour is applied in thin layers on top of another to create an ill-defined, hazy effect.

It’s interesting then that you can draw a vertical line of light from the furtherest point of the shore where the monk is standing, up through softer clouds to what appears to be a small amount of sunshine in the break in the clouds. To me, this serves to draw attention to the monk.

It’s been suggested that the monk was modelled on Friedrich himself – you can see the long red flowing beard in the profile of the monk below.


Friedrich would have painted this work his studio, using freely drawn plein air sketches, and he would have used the most evocative elements to create an expressive composition, continuing to modify it to make it more evocative.

The painting took over two years to complete with multiple changes and over-paintings.

The composition could not be further from typical German landscape paintings of the time. These generally followed the principles of the picturesque style imported from England. This style tended to employ well-established perspective techniques designed to draw the viewer into the picture; devices such as trees situated in the foreground, or rivers winding their course in a soft s shape into the distance.

Friedrich deliberately shunned these principles. His unconventional decisions in a painting of this size (110 cm × 171.5 cm (43 in × 67.5 in)) provoked consternation among contemporary viewers, as his friend Heinrich von Kleist famously wrote: “Since it has, in its uniformity and boundlessness, no foreground but the frame, it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut off.”

Friedrich drew on the natural world around him, often returning to the same area again and again. He condensed the image so as to communicate an exact emotion. As he put it, “a painter should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself.”

What is your response to this painting?

sources: Berlin Museum, khanacademy

To learn more about Romanticism in art, you may enjoy my e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art.

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