Back to nature

Back to nature

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  • Monk by the sea.

    FRIEDRICH Caspar David (1774 - 1840)

  • Monument in memory of Goethe.

    CARUS Carl Gustav (1789 - 1869)

  • Ritterburg, rock castle.

    LESSING Carl (1808 - 1880)

  • Reading the breviary in the evening.

    SPITZWEG Carl (1808 - 1885)

To close

Title: Monk by the sea.

Author : FRIEDRICH Caspar David (1774 - 1840)

Creation date : 1809

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 110 - Width 171

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Alte Nationalgalerie website

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Jörg P. Anders

Picture reference: 04-501017 / NG9 / 85

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Jörg P. Anders

To close

Title: Monument in memory of Goethe.

Author : CARUS Carl Gustav (1789 - 1869)

Creation date : 1832

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 71 - Width 52.2

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Kunsthalle website

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Elke Walford

Picture reference: 04-503204 / 1157

Monument in memory of Goethe.

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Elke Walford

To close

Title: Ritterburg, rock castle.

Author : LESSING Carl (1808 - 1880)

Creation date : 1828

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 138 - Width 194

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Alte Nationalgalerie website

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Jörg P. Anders

Picture reference: 06-517301 / W. S. 133

Ritterburg, rock castle.

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Jörg P. Anders

To close

Title: Reading the breviary in the evening.

Author : SPITZWEG Carl (1808 - 1885)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 29.5 - Width 23

Technique and other indications: Oil on wood.

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved website

Picture reference: 89-002171 / RF1988-53

Reading the breviary in the evening.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: September 2008


Back to nature


Historical context

"He who created earth and sky is all around me" (Friedrich)

The dream of a "return to nature", present from the 18th century, led around 1800 to the revaluation of landscape painting, a genre then considered minor in the academic hierarchy of subjects, where the human figure is supposed to crown creation. Nature becomes the site of the projection of German identity, before confessional dissensions and the return of the princes shatter the ideal of unity of the romantic landscape.

Image Analysis

"Nature is […] a musical instrument whose sounds, again, are the keys of the highest strings in us" (Novalis)

In the Monk by the sea of Friedrich, the disproportion between the frail silhouette and the "Nordic" landscape, reduced to three bands of color, the erasure of the sailboats originally painted on the horizon and the absence of elements in the margins of the representation, create a impression of spatial dilation, infinity, even threat. This feeling of the "sublime", theorized at the end of the 18th century by Kant, makes it possible to evoke a truly unrepresentable divine greatness. “The divine is everywhere, even in the grain of sand,” Friedrich would have said. The subjectivity of this relationship is expressed by the position and anonymity of the character, who forms a relay for the viewer while supporting one of the artist's credo: "Close your bodily eye in order to first see your painting with the eye of the mind. "This phenomenon of interiorization of nature frees the painter from a precise description of places in favor of the feeling they give rise to. In the Monument to Goethe, Carus combines rigorously observed rocks, plants and atmospheric phenomena in an unreal landscape, according to the poetic-scientific method of Goethe's research on nature. The instrument surrounded by angels symbolizes the musical and harmonic dimension of this new relationship to the world. In the Ritterburg of Lessing, the landscape is more descriptive than its predecessors while retaining a lyrical character. This is expressed in the organic way in which the imaginary medieval castle (from Walter Scott's reading) extends the landscape. The point of view and the use of backlighting, the fragility, but also the durability of the building, make the work a meditation on the course of history. The Reading the Breviary by the Bavarian Spitzweg takes the romantic elements to offer a satirical version. The character is placed in a pure landscape (a village originally in the background has been erased), but his somewhat grotesque silhouette, his costume of a young Catholic seminarian and the cabbages placed in the foreground are rather an obstacle to the ideal of fusion. Spitzweg thus brings back tension between nature and religion, origin and history, man and landscape.


From ideal scenery to the prosaic nature of nature

The four paintings bear witness to the evolution of the feeling for nature in Germany and the dissensions between their authors. While Friedrich is considered the representative of the metaphysical landscape, his disciple Carus, also a doctor and naturalist, from the 1820s tended to distance himself from it in order to turn to a more scientific restitution of plant and mineral configurations. His Letters on landscape painting (1815-1835) still express his attachment to Friedrich's aesthetics, but also the fear that the subjective landscape of Romanticism might lead to a form of opacity contrary to his desire for an alliance between art and science. Goethe, who wrote the preface to it and to whom Carus pays homage here, himself contributed as much to the birth of Romanticism as he fought its subjectivist and national drifts in an 1817 text written with the art historian. Heinrich Meyer, “Neo-German, patriotico-religious art”. Defender of a European neoclassicism, Goethe denounces in particular in the Cemetery of a cloister under the snow (1828-1830, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museul) by Lessing the aspirations of an "frozen youth" heir to Friedrich. Lessing, however, is also moving towards a mixture of idealism and realism. The Ritterburg can appear as a work of transition between its romantic landscapes, its new concern for observing reality and its forthcoming rallying to national history painting. In Spitzweg, the ideal of the early Romantics' "return" to nature, as their claim for a common identity, shows its limits in a society biedermeier (petty bourgeois) now dominated by conventional individualism and sentimentalism.

  • Germany
  • Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von)
  • Franco-German special issue
  • romanticism
  • campaign
  • Mountain
  • nature


German painting in the age of Romanticism, Paris, National Museums Editions, 1976 Élisabeth DECULTOT,Paint the landscape. Theoretical discourse and pictorial renewal in German romanticism, Tusson, Editions Du Lérot, 1996.Julie RAMOS,Nostalgia for unity. Landscape and Music in the Painting of P. O. Runge and C. D. Friedrich, Rennes, Rennes University Press, 2008 Pierre WAT,Birth of romantic art. Painting and theory of imitation, Paris, Flammarion, 1998.

To cite this article

Julie RAMOS, "Back to nature"

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