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Exhibitions/ Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich: Moonwatchers

September 11–November 11, 2001

Exhibition Overview

This small but intriguing exhibition celebrates the Museum's acquisition of its first work by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), Two Men Contemplating the Moon. The first version of the painting (1819) is on loan from the Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. The second variation of Friedrich's famous theme, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (ca. 1824, Nationalgalerie, Berlin) is also on loan. The third and supposed last version of the painting, Two Men Contemplating the Moon (ca. 1830), remained with descendants of its original owners for 170 years before it was purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000 with funds given by Mrs. Jayne Wrightsman.

Other highlights of this presentation are paintings by Johan Cristian Dahl (Norwegian, 1788–1857), Carl Gustav Carus (German, 1789–1869), August Heinrich (German, 1794–1822), Christian Friedrich Gille (German, 1805–1899), and Martinus Rørbye (Danish, 1804–1848). The works on view document the German Romantic obsession with haunting landscapes, intensely radiating skies, and distant, mirage-like cities.

Friedrich's paintings in particular reflect a fascination with the moon that initially inspired mid-eighteenth-century poets and writers. These literary allusions are discussed in the accompanying catalogue's essay by co-curator Sabine Rewald. Long associated in folktales and myths with "the night side of things"—with magic, the semiconscious, emotions, fertility (or the feminine), the morbid, or the ghostly—the moon ignited a cult in Germany that revealed itself most vividly in the oeuvre of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). In Goethe's poetry and writing—as in the Romantic imagination—the symbolic meaning of the moon shifted from one of yearning and despair to serene contemplation to final demystification with the advent of rational, scientific inquiry. Goethe had actually offended Friedrich when he asked him for an illustration of clouds for a meteorological survey, unaware that to Friedrich, the sky—with its ever-changing mysterious light—was a phenomenon of the Divine.

Friedrich's landscapes rarely depict daylight or sunlight; rather, the paintings portray dawn, dusk, fog, or mist—phenomena that invite mystery. At the time, the German Romantic writer, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1771–1801), espoused what he had termed the "estrangement effect," which gave "the commonplace higher meaning—the familiar an enigmatic look, the finite the appearance of the infinite…the Romantic." The era's obsession with the moon was later crystallized in the words of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who, in around 1840, wrote, "Why has looking at the moon become so beneficiary, so soothing and so sublime? Because the moon remains purely an object for contemplation, not of the will. Furthermore, the moon is sublime, and moves us sublimely because it stays aloof from all our earthly activities…" Pious sharing of nature's sublimity—a Romantic view of friendship that was celebrated in life as well as in art—is a constant in the theme of Friedrich's pictures. The pairs of moonwatchers endow the landscapes with additional meaning.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

The symmetry underlying Friedrich's landscapes is usually severe, and the scenes are frequently without figures. However the Dresden version of Two Men Contemplating the Moon is exceptional. One of the artist's most often illustrated and cited pictures, and the best known of the three celebrated paintings, this nocturnal version is the most dramatic. The composition is asymmetrical, the landscape relatively crowded. Symbolic elements—a dead oak tree and an evergreen, a rock, and two large figures—evoke stage decor. Interpretations of this small painting are wildly divergent, ranging from exclusively Christian, to pagan, mystical, and political. The manner in which the two men are dressed can be read (and has been documented) as a reference to the German political landscape of the time. Friedrich gave this painting to his friend and neighbor Dahl shortly after it was completed, and it is not known to what degree this version informed the other two.

Controversy surrounds the date of the Nationalgalerie's version, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, whose whereabouts before 1922 are unknown. In this painting, the light of early dusk creates a contrast between the darkened foreground and the luminous void of the sky. The silhouette of a dead tree with spiky branches and menacing exposed roots dominates the picture, and the two people seem stiff and mute. It has been suggested that the couple represents Friedrich and his wife Caroline.

The third version of Friedrich's painting was acquired by the Metropolitan last year. Its provenance can be traced to its original owner. Friedrich had given drawing lessons to the daughter of Dr. Otto Friedrich Rosenberg, his physician. In lieu of a fee, the artist—ailing and financially strapped—gave the doctor this supposed last version of Two Men Contemplating the Moon (ca. 1830). In the painting, Friedrich reinstated two male figures, repeated a lighter sky, and painted with a fluidity and assurance that is not present in the two earlier versions. (Recent infra-red examination has established that there was no under-drawing guiding the artist's hand.)