Two Men Contemplating the Moon

Caspar David Friedrich (German, Greifswald 1774–1840 Dresden)
ca. 1825–30
Oil on canvas
13 3/4 x 17 1/4 in. (34.9 x 43.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Wrightsman Fund, 2000
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 807
These two figures are seen from behind so that the viewer may participate in their communion with nature. They have been identified as Friedrich, at right, and his friend and disciple August Heinrich (1794–1822). Fascination with the moon ran high among the German Romantics, who regarded the motif as an object of pious contemplation. This is the third version of one of Friedrich’s most famous compositions, of which the first was painted during Heinrich’s lifetime (1819; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and the second soon after his death (ca. 1824; Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).
#6007. Two Men Contemplating the Moon
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Caspar David Friedrich was born in Greifswald, a small town on the Baltic Sea. After studying at the Copenhagen Art Academy, in 1798 he settled in Dresden, then a center of the German Romantic movement. From the beginning of his career, Friedrich favored the subject of landscape, drawing his motifs mainly from two regions in Germany: the mountains of the Riesengebirge and of Bohemia as well as the northern Baltic coast and the island of Rügen. Friedrich began to paint in oils on canvas in 1807. Although he earned professional success, including royal patronage, his meditative, often barren landscapes, rich in spiritual associations, challenged and perplexed many of his contemporaries. Indeed, during the 1820s his pictures began to lose favor with a public who preferred the faithfully rendered scenes of the younger generation of artists of the Düsseldorf School. Friedrich died in poverty and near obscurity in Dresden. (See Börsch-Supan and Jähnig 1973, pp. 11–12, and Werner Hofmann, ed., Caspar David Friedrich, 1774–1840: Kunst um 1800, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 1974, pp. 83–88.) With time, however, he came to be recognized as one of the most important figures of German Romanticism and as a guiding light to fellow artists, most notably the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857).

This work, painted about 1830, is the third variant of one of Friedrich’s most cited and reproduced paintings. In the first version, a rust-brown haze envelops sky and landscape, creating a nocturnal mood (1819, Dresden Gemäldegalerie; see Notes). In the second version, the two protagonists are a man and a woman, and the sky is changed to a rose-mauve dusk (ca. 1824, Nationalgalerie, Berlin; see Notes). Here, Friedrich retained the luminosity of the Berlin canvas yet reintroduced the two male figures found in the Dresden composition. Infrared photographs have established that Friedrich made no underdrawings, and his painting is so fluid that the forms appear less detailed than in the other two versions. Suffused with rose-mauve light, the present scene conveys the greatest sense of serenity.

Contemporary sources have identified the two men as the forty-five-year-old Friedrich and his talented colleague, the twenty-five-year-old August Heinrich (1794–1822). They pause on their evening walk through a late autumnal forest to contemplate the sinking moon and Venus, the evening star. The mood of piously shared contemplation relates to the fascination with the moon experienced in poetry, literature, philosophy, and music of the time. Both figures are seen from the back so that the viewer can identify with their communion with nature, in which the Romantics saw a manifestation of the sublime. They follow in the tradition of the wanderers who, as personifications of restless yearning, roam through Romantic novels, poems, and music.

Both men’s attire—the beret and cape of the figure on the right and the cap and coat of the one on the left—conform to the Old German dress code that had been adopted in 1815 by radical German students. These students opposed the ultraconservative policies being enforced in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. The staunchly patriotic Friedrich deliberately ignored the 1819 royal degree that forbade this dress, seen as a type of “demagogues’ uniform,” and continued to show his figures in Old German costume until his death.

This composition is unusual for Friedrich in that it is asymmetrical, and the landscape relatively crowded. Symbol-laden elements line the winding forest path: the evergreen fir tree, a dead oak, a rock, and a large broken-off branch. The landscape is imaginary, as is the juxtaposition of the emblematic oak, fir, rock, and branch; they are, however, based on precise studies after nature that Friedrich had made in various regions at different times and combined here in a single composition (see Notes). The widely diverging interpretations accorded to this small picture—pagan, nature-mystical, political, or exclusively Christian—tend to obliterate its simple yet deeply contemplative mood (Werner Busch, "Zu Verständnis und Interpretation romantischer Kunst," in Werner Busch et al., Romantik, 1987, pp. 19–29; expanded in Werner Busch, Caspar David Friedrich: Ästhetik und Religion, 2003, pp. 172–85).

[2014; adapted from Rewald 2005]
Dr. Otto Friedrich Rosenberg, Dresden (by 1840–d. 1850; acquired from the artist in exchange for medical attention); his daughter, Theophila Minna Rosenberg, Dresden (by 1850–presumably until d. 1882); by descent through the Rosenberg family, Wuppertal-Barmen, later Hamburg, to Gottfried Spiegler, Glinde (until 1999; sale, Christie's, London, October 7, 1999, no. 10, for £771,500 [approx. $1,277,000] to Artemis); [Artemis Fine Arts, New York, 1999–2000; sold to MMA]
Dortmund. Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. "Caspar David Friedrich: Winterlandschaften," 1990, no. 37 (as "Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes," lent by a private collector, Hamburg).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers," September 11–November 11, 2001, no. 3 (as "Two Men Contemplating the Moon [Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes"]).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.


Johan Christian Dahl. Letter to Dresden Gëmaldegalerie. September 26, 1840 [published in Christie's sale cat., October 7, 1999, p. 19], remarks that Friedrich made several copies of the Dresden picture.

Werner Sumowski. Caspar David Friedrich-Studien. Wiesbaden, 1970, p. 179, fig. 395, mentions it as a replica of the Dresden picture; as in a private collection of a family in Wuppertal-Barmen to whose ancestor, Fritz von Rosenberg, Friedrich gave it.

Helmut Börsch-Supan and Karl Wilhelm Jähnig. Caspar David Friedrich: Gemälde, Druckgraphik und bildmässige Zeichnungen. Munich, 1973, pp. 356, 415–16, no. 366, ill. (color), as "Zwei Manner in Betrachtung des Mondes" in a private collection at Wuppertal-Barmen.

Hans-Werner Grohn in Werner Hofmann. Caspar David Friedrich, 1774–1840. Exh. cat., Hamburger Kunsthalle. Munich, 1974, p. 227.

Helmut Börsch-Supan. L'opera completa di Friedrich. Milan, 1976, p. 105, no. 182, ill., calls it "Due uomini davanti alla luna" and dates it about 1829; as in a private collection in Wuppertal-Barmen; states that, according to family tradition, Friedrich gave it to his doctor Fritz von Rosenberg.

John Leighton in Caspar David Friedrich: Winter Landscape. Exh. cat., National Gallery. London, 1990, pp. 41, 70 [German ed., "Caspar David Friedrich: Winterlandschaften," (Heidelberg), 1990, pp. 136, 138, no. 37, ill. (color)].

Gary Tinterow and Sabine Rewald in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 1999–2000." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 58 (Fall 2000), p. 36, ill. (color), call it the second of three works on this theme and note that in this version Friedrich is thought to have painted it in remembrance of his favorite student, August Heinrich, who had died recently; remark that the images of the fir, gnarled oak, and rising moon are subject to interpretation.

Sabine Rewald. Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, pp. 7, 18–19, 31, 33–35, no. 3, ill. (color, overall and detail on cover), calls it "Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes)," dates it about 1830, one of two versions Friedrich painted of the work in Dresden and the one more like the original; remarks that it retains the luminosity of the Berlin version, yet reintroduces the complicity between the figures of the Dresden painting; notes that there is no underdrawing.

Roberta Smith. "The Primly Austere, and Occasionally Dark Side of the Moon." New York Times (September 14, 2001), p. E30, ill.

Philippe de Montebello in Sabine Rewald. Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, p. 6.

Kasper Monrad in Sabine Rewald. Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, pp. 23, 27.

Sabine Rewald in The Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 342–45, no. 96, ill. (color).

Sabine Rewald in Masterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 17, 249, no. 15, ill. (color and black and white).

Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, pp. 430, 443, no. 328, ill. pp. 340, 430 (color).

There are multiple versions of this composition in addition to the Metropolitan's picture:

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1819. Oil on canvas, 13 3⁄4 × 17 1⁄2 in. (35 × 44.5 cm), Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Friedrich gave this version (the first) to his friend and upstairs neighbor, Johan Christian Dahl, in exchange for one of Dahl’s works. Dahl kept the picture, of which Friedrich made two more versions, until Friedrich’s death, when he sold it to the Dresden Gemäldegalerie.

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, ca. 1824. Oil on canvas, 13 3⁄8 × 17 3⁄8 in. (34 × 44 cm), Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. A second version, previously dated 1830–35 by Börsch-Supan; whereabouts before 1935 unknown.

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, of unknown date. Oil on canvas, 13 3⁄8 × 17 in. (34 × 43 cm). A fourth version or copy. Galerie Hans, Hamburg (in 2001).

There are also two related drawings:

Studies of Two Trees, April 25, 1809. Pencil, 12 1⁄2 × 10 1⁄8 in. (31.7 × 25.7 cm). Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Bare Oak Tree, May 3, 1809. Pencil, 14 1⁄8 × 10 3⁄8 in. (36 × 25.9 cm). Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo.