This was the first painting by Friedrich, one of the principal figures of German Romantic art, to enter a British public collection when it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1987. A man, having cast aside his crutches, lies against a large boulder in a snowy landscape as he prays in front of a shining crucifix protected by three fir trees – a trinity that recalls the Christian Trinity of God the Father, Christ and the Holy Ghost. The silhouette of a German Gothic cathedral or church looms in the mist, its facade and spires echoing the shapes of the trees.
The picture appears to be a companion to another painting, of the same date and title, in the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin. In the Schwerin picture, a similar tiny figure, leaning on a crutch, stares at a deserted snow-covered landscape under a grey-black sky as he wanders among dead or dying oak trees. If that picture is one of desolation and despair, the National Gallery painting offers the hope of resurrection through Christian faith.
This was the first painting by Friedrich, one of the principal figures of German Romantic art, to enter a British public collection when purchased by the National Gallery in 1987. It had been discovered in Paris in 1982 in the collection of an exiled Russian prince. It shows a snowy landscape in which a man, having cast aside his crutches, lies against a large boulder as he prays in front of a shining crucifix protected by three fir trees (a trinity that recalls the Christian Trinity). In the distance, the silhouette of a German Gothic cathedral looms in the mist, its facade and spires echoing the shapes of the trees in the foreground.
The picture most likely dates from 1811 and appears to be a pendant (companion) to another painting, of the same date and title, in the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin. In the Schwerin picture, a similar tiny figure, leaning on a crutch, stares at a deserted snow-covered landscape under a grey-black sky. As he wanders among dead or dying oak trees, the stumps of felled trees stretch into the distance behind him. If that picture is one of desolation and despair, the National Gallery painting offers the hope of resurrection through Christian faith. The shoots of grass pushing through the snow, evergreen trees and faint pink glow of approaching dawn affirm its message of renewal and rebirth. It is a fine example of Friedrich’s use of landscape painting as a vehicle for religious feeling and personal symbolism. As he stated, his aim was not ‘the faithful representation of air, water, rocks and trees … but the reflection of [the artist’s] soul and emotion in these objects.’
Winter Landscape is painted with a limited range of pigments, its atmospheric effect achieved through smoothly graduated tones rather than colour. The distinctive effect of a shimmering translucent mist was achieved by careful stippling with the point of a brush using smalt, a blue pigment that contains glass and is transparent in an oil medium. Friedrich’s precise handling of paint derives from his training as a draughtsman and topographical artist. Infrared photography shows detailed underdrawing in most areas of the picture. The structure of the cathedral, especially, was defined in detail, possibly in pencil overlaid with ink. Friedrich included similar visionary Gothic cathedrals in other paintings. These were usually imaginary structures, although often based upon his studies of actual buildings, notably the Marienkirche in Neubrandenburg.
A very similar version of this picture was discovered in 1940 and is now in the Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte in Dortmund. Although several other pictures by Friedrich exist in at least one other version, there is reference to only one Winter Landscape in the early literature on him. Until the discovery of Winter Landscape in Paris, the Dortmund picture was believed to be the original painted by Friedrich in 1811. However, there is no evidence of underdrawing in the Dortmund version, the overall execution is less detailed, the gateway beneath the cathedral is missing (as are the blades of grass in the foreground) and the cathedral itself is a vague silhouette that lacks any distinct architectural features. The Dortmund picture may be a replica by Friedrich but is more likely a copy by a pupil or imitator. The London Winter Landscape, however, has all the hallmarks of Friedrich’s own hand.
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