The Lit Maven

An Artist to Remember and Enjoy

Posted on: December 21, 2012

FirTreesSince I work in the medical library of a hospital, I have access to JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. As a highly respected medical journal, JAMA started publication in 1883 and has not stopped its output since. Every week, JAMA displays a work of art on its cover and a story inside called, simply, “The Cover” that focuses on the artist and the particular painting. Why would a peer-reviewed medical journal, perhaps first in its field, boast a work of art AND information to go with it? I don’t know, but it appeals to the eye as well as to the mind. In the December 19, 2012 issue, JAMA displayed Fir Trees in the Snow by German artist Caspar David Freidrich, circa 1828. Simple, elegant and unadorned, this painting is so beautiful in its naturalness that I had to find out more. He was born in Greifswald in 1774, attended the Academy of Copenhagen (where he studied – what else? – landscape painting), then returned to Germany to the town of Dresden. He became quite famous as a landscape painter fueling his talent with long hikes through the foggy, chilly woods of the area. Caspar was spiritually drawn to theologian Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten who believed that nature was a revelation of God. His most famous work, The Cross in the Mountains was exhibited as an altarpiece on Christmas Day, 1808. He added human silhouettes to his later works giving his paintings a more earth-bound feel, like the contemplative The Wanderer Above the Mists or the vibrant Chalk Cliffs on Rugen. He painted The Chalk Cliffs to commemorate his wedding to Christine Bommer in 1818. Sometime in the 1820’s (when he painted Fir Trees), he became a victim of the fading German Romantic Movement. People of the period wanted modern stuff not landscapes, no matter how beautiful and awe-inspiring. Until his death in 1840, he became a recluse, often walking in the woods to catch any fading light. He suffered a stroke in 1835 which impaired him to the point that he was unable to paint in oil and worked instead in watercolor and sepia. His paintings became more dark, lonely and depressing (in fact, Caspar suffered from several bouts of depression throughout his life). Sadly, almost a hundred years after his death, his painting became the artistic symbol of Nazism. It took decades for his reputation to recover. This is very strange since so many of his works depict monasteries and churches not to mention nature in its rawest, most mysterious and outstandingly beautiful forms. Fir Trees in the Snow was originally titled, Out of the Dresden Heath and most likely copied from actual trees standing in a forest right outside the town of Dresden. Are they still there, I wonder?

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