There are very few works by Caspar David Friedrich outside Germany or Eastern Europe so it is good to be able to see this small painting on the walls of the National Gallery.
Friedrich’s landscapes were rarely a precise representation of an actual place; rather he utilised his many sketches of hills, streams or individual trees in different parts of Germany in the creation of a personal landscape. His paintings are effectively compilations — compositions emerged from his imagination and he would then use selected studies as building blocks or templates to put together the finished painting. But these ersatz scenes assumed a highly charged religious significance in keeping with a contemporary strand of Lutheran thought grounded in a philosophy which celebrated God through landscape.
There is no doubt about it, there are not many laughs to be gained from looking at paintings by Friedrich. But he is one of those artists who have a very personal voice. His paintings try to reveal the spirituality which he detected within Nature. And he chose to illustrate that spirituality by accentuating the superhuman scale and elemental power of Nature which usually dwarfs the human presence in most of his paintings. It is this emphasis on the disparity of natural forces, when juxtaposed with the human onlooker, which in large part produces the trademark melancholia and loneliness which suffuses his work.
In this picture we see that a crucifix has been erected in front of a fir tree. Other trees and a couple of rocks punctuate a snowy and otherwise featureless landscape. But looming out of the eerie half light of morning (or possibly evening) a curious Gothic structure rises, mirroring the shape of the large tree. For Friedrich, Gothic architecture was quintessentially German and there was also an equivalence between its natural construction (as he saw it) and the forms which appear in the forests of Germany. So this structure is there both as an emblem of faith and as a symbol of German nationalism.
On a cursory glance it is possible to miss the single man sitting in the snow. But there he is, his back propped against the central rock, praying before the crucifix. He has abandoned a pair of crutches in his eagerness to commune with God. This may at first appear to be a scene of utter despair but Winter Landscape should rather be seen as an image of hope in resurrection — an example of the solace to be gained from religious faith.
1809 Jacques-Louis David: Sappho and Phaon, Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1811 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Jupiter and Thetis, Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
1812 Joseph Mallord William Turner: Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps; London, Tate Britain