The Monk by the Sea
Arguably one of Friedrich's most important and well-known works in his oeuvre, this painting launched the artist to international fame when it was exhibited with The Abbey in the Oak Woods (1808-10) at an 1810 art exhibition in Berlin. A vast, empty landscape is dominated by the top three quarters of the canvas, which depicts a blue-gray sky and green sea. The foreground is an uneven swath of beige land where, just left of center, stands a man. Although his back is to the viewer, he is identifiable by the long, dark robe of a monk. The canvas is filled with large expanses of color, punctuated by small brushstrokes of white to denote a few crests of waves and birds in the sky. It is a masterpiece of minimalism and pictorial restraint, while still conjuring a felt sensation of awe, wonder, and humility.
The positive reception of this pair of paintings contributed to Friedrich' election as a member of the Berlin Academy and also drew the favor of Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia, who purchased the two exhibited paintings for the royal collection; a prestigious honor. Beyond the accolades, however, this work demonstrates Friedrich's experimental spirit. Any traditional approach to landscape painting has disappeared. At a quick glance, the compositional structure appears uneven and lacks a perspective focal point. Rather than illustrate a scene, Friedrich has created an opportunity for the viewer to experience a range of emotions, only suggested by the artist. If he had included more details, the viewer would be tempted to invent a narrative or story, but with this bare minimum, we are felt with only sensorial information.
This new way of creating landscapes reinforced the idea that the viewer should contemplate the sublimity of the natural world and read into it an expression of the spiritual. The potential for deep meaning in a sparse, non-narrative style, would be critical to modernist abstraction. This painting, in particular, has been linked with the post World War II Color Field paintings of Mark Rothko, also intended to cultivate a spiritual experience for the viewer.
While Friedrich often painted landscapes without a human presence, this painting represents his second approach to investing the landscape painting with a deeper significance and connection to the viewer: the use of a proxy or stand-in. The solitary figure turned towards and in communion with the landscape, known as "ruckenfigur," is one of the key ways German Romanticism differentiates itself from French and British Romanticism. Although internationally, Romanticism was occupied with the connection between man and nature, British painters tended to emphasize more nostalgic or bucolic landscapes, while the French painters often suggested man's desire to conquer nature; the German approach depicts man's attempt to understand nature and, by extension, the divine. This preference for an emotional connection between the viewer and the image replaced more literal or illustrative approaches, exemplified by Friedrich's moody landscapes, which often thrust the viewer into the wilds of nature.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Nationalgalerie, Stattliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany