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The Genius of Caspar David Friedrich: German Art in the Hermitage Collection
20 April 2002 - 18 August 2002

The exhibition in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House in London, Great Britain, showed 12 masterpieces (six oil paintings and six sepia drawings) of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), the leader of the German romantic painting. Alongside Friedrich's works, gouaches of Adolf Menzel (1815-1905) and paintings of Friedrich Johann Overbeck (1789-1869), Josef Anton Koch (1768-1839), Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), Karl Ferdinand Kugelgen (1772-1832) and Albrecht Adam (1786-1862) were showed.

The life of Caspar David Friedrich was apparently uneventful. He was born in the north of Germany, in Greifswald (then in Swedish Pomerania). His contemporaries remembered him as a reticent and unsociable person who abandoned his reserve only when among friends. As an artist, Friedrich had a slow development, gradually freeing himself from the fetters of traditional schooling. His favourite themes were the island of Ruegen, Baltic coastline, Germanic antiquities and ruins of medieval cathedrals. In 1794-1798 he attended the Academy of Arts in Copenhagen, whereupon he made Dresden his home leaving it only to visit his native town and travel to the various mountainous areas in Germany.

Friedrich's watercolours and sepia drawings were the first to attract the public's attention; two of them, showed in 1805 at an exhibition in Weimar won a prize with Goethe's support and were purchased by Duke Karl August. Friedrich started to use oil as late as 1807 but he at once showed himself to be a mature master. His unordinary ideas and original artistic language won him Romantics' praises. The artist's paintings were sought by the King and Crown Prince of Prussia and he was elected to the Academies of Berlin and Dresden. Inspired by the war against Napoleon, Friedrich took part in the Patriotic Exhibition organized by the Saxon Governor General Prince N.G. Repnin in Dresden occupied by the Russian Army. Then the usual loneliness returned. As the Romantic era was dying out, interest in his art was fading. He died in 1840 forgotten by all except his close friends.

Almost all of the Hermitage works of Friedrich come from palaces in St Petersburg. In 1820 Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich visited his studio and bought the canvases Sailing-ship and Harbor at Night for his wife, Grand Duchess Alexandra Fedorovna. Other paintings and drawings found their way to St Petersburg due to the famous Russian poet Vasily A. Zhukovsky, the tutor of the heir to the throne Alexander II. He met Friedrich in 1821 and was quick to understand the originality of the kindred romantic spirit. Over many years, till the artist's last days, the Russian poet used every chance to help him buying his works himself and recommending them to the Empress and Heir.

Friedrich's art cannot boast showy effects, expressive strokes, rich chiaroscuro or impressive colour nuances. However, he may be now the most popular German painter of the 19th century.

The cultivated Russian diplomat A.I. Turgenev wrote in his diary on 6 August 1825, "We visited Friedrich's atelier today. Listening to him and seeing his paintings was wonderful. He has some bonhomie which pleases people and his paintings reveal his romantic imagination. As a rule, he expresses in them one thought or feeling, though vaguely. You may meditate over his paintings but not have a clear understanding of them, for they are vague even in his soul. They are dreams or daydreams. He often employs very simple natural things, such as an ice block floating on sea waves, a few trees in a dale, window of his room (facing the beautiful Elbe), knight meditating over ruins or tombstones, monk staring into the distance or below his feet: all this captivates your soul, plunges you into dreams, all invokes your imagination, powerfully though vaguely."

Night in a Harbour (Sisters)

Larger view

On a Sailing Ship
Between 1818 and 1820
Larger view

Moonrise over the Sea
Larger view

Sunset (Brothers)
Between 1830 and 1835
Larger view

Owl in a Gothic Window
Circa 1836
Larger view

Boat on the Shore. Moonrise
Circa 1837-1839
Larger view


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