Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a key German Romantic painter. Artists from this movement expressed emotion in their work. Friedrich’s childhood was scarred by the deaths of many of his friends and family. Later in his life, his paintings reflected a sense of desolation. But he also found meaning in religion. The Romantic understanding of the sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke in his influential 1757 Philosophical Enquiry, linked it with intense subjective feelings of awe and terror, best seen in nature.
In Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Friedrich conveys the majesty of an untouched landscape. The vast scene unfolds in foggy atmospheric perspective, receding in hazy layers. Friedrich does not frame the composition with typical pictorial devices such as tree branches; instead, he leaves the picture plane open with a distant focal point. The vertical orientation—echoed in the man’s upright stance—emphasizes a connection to the heavens. Friedrich visually reinforces this idea with the triangular crag in the foreground, which points to the sky. Friedrich creates an impression of unending space to reveal nature’s divinity. He sought to create a Christian artwork without using traditionally Christian images; instead, a man observes a seemingly infinite landscape.
Friedrich uses mood and symbolism to convey the sublime. The palette is limited to blue, gray, and brown, with hints of pink in the distance. The shifting fog and chiaroscuro (high contrasts of light and dark) convey a sense of movement and energy. The man’s hair blows in the wind. His perch at the apex of a craggy promontory positions him in the ideal place to commune with nature and suggests the inner state of his psyche. The distant mountains seem to converge around the figure, linking him with the landscape. Through the work, Friedrich makes a statement about the individual and nature. The man, dressed as a gentleman to suggest intellectualism, contemplates the world.
Friedrich’s training is evident in this oil painting. The carefully rendered details and shifting values give veracity to the scene. However, Friedrich transforms this landscape into a Romantic subject, artificially composed to stimulate a strong emotional response in the viewer. The artist invites viewers to relate to the central figure by allowing us to see what he sees.
Many scholars believe this is a self-portrait and the landscape is a psychological portrait. As Friedrich stands in solitude on the mountain, he contemplates the vision before him, an expression of truth.