In 1808, Friedrich courted controversy when he completed one such landscape, Cross in the Mountains (1807–08), which he painted as an altarpiece. Featuring the crucifixion at the top of a mountain, with three beams of light reaching into the moody, high-contrast sky, the work posits that nature—which takes up more of the frame than Christ himself—was itself divine.
Scholars initially believed the work was a commission. In fact, Friedrich conceived of the piece as a tribute to King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden (a plan quashed when the monarch was deposed in 1808). It was eventually acquired by an aristocratic family living in a Bohemian castle in Tetschen (in the modern-day Czech Republic), and the painting became known as the Tetschen Altar.
Soon after, in 1810, Friedrich was elected a member of the Berlin Academy, and then the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1816. He’d secured his spot, for the moment, in the German art echelons. (His reputation eventually declined, and he died in 1840 as Realism was overtaking Romanticism.)
In 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer and began a family (the couple eventually had three children). The same year, he painted the artwork that’s now nearly synonymous with his name. To construct the composition, Friedrich traveled to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains southeast of Dresden, sketching individual rocks and natural forms with intense detail. Back in his studio, he cobbled these together to create a new, imaginary landscape.
Between the viewer and the foggy distance, Friedrich painted a Rückenfigur
, or a figure seen from behind. As Julian Jason Haladyn explains in his 2016 essay “Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer’: Paradox of the Modern Subject,” the subject serves as a surrogate for the viewer. “We look to this human presence as a means of determining the general scale of the scene,” he writes, “and, more specifically, of relating our physical bodies to the spatial parameters of the painted world.” Here, the brushy sky, like those of
, becomes nearly abstract.
The artist’s legacy suffered when Hitler and the Nazis claimed Friedrich as their ideological forebear in the 1930s. They connected his rapture for the German landscape with their slogan of “Blood & Soil,” which similarly romanticized national territory. This association turned off future scholars to Friedrich’s work for decades.