The period of the Romantic movement was a time in arts history that proposed people another way of approaching life than the one they had and of their everyday philosophy, pushing to put forward feelings, dreaming and emotions.
Romantic artists worked on creating beautiful works that would express the ineffable. One of the most renowned painters of the romantic time is Caspar David Friedrich. Together with other painters such as Karl Friedrich Lessing or Andreas Achenbach, Friedrich went to the Dusseldorf School for Painting. The school was very invested in teaching its students to create paintings that would put the accent on small details that were composing grandiose paintings that usually represented natural landscapes. The influence the school had on Friedrich’s work is thus quite clear, as his paintings contain many details. However, Friedrich brought a new way of looking at nature, and that was through the emotional filter of the painter. His paintings are allegories, where every detail is a piece of a puzzle the viewer is invited to decode.
Today, there are over 500 paintings attributed to Friedrich, one of the most known paintings being „The Stages of Life”, or, „Die Lebensstufen”, a title not given by Friedrich, but by the scholars who studied his works and life between the end of the XIXth century and the beginning of the XXth century.
In this 1835 painting, Caspar David Friedrich uses his brush to present us with his meditation over the passing of man through life. To do this, he carefully illustrated five boats lying at different distances one from the other and from the small people of different ages represented in the foreground.
At a first sight, the painting impresses through the strongly saturated, yet light colors of the sunset under which the scene develops. The composition of the painting features a great balance between the lines, the colors and the dark areas.
„Die Lebensstufen” shows a port at the Baltic Sea during sunset. While most of Friedrich’s paintings are not set in clear locations, this one has been pointed out to be set in Utkiek, a town nearby Greifswald, the town where the painter was born. Today, Greifswald is located in North-East Germany.
In the furthest level of the painting we see five ships on the water, then two adults and two children standing on a small hill and, in the front, an old man, holding his back to the viewer, walking toward the other characters. It becomes clear rather fast that the people are the reflections of the ships. Each of them is at a closer or further point from death.
The people in the painting have been identified as being the artist’s own family – the old man being the painter himself, the boy being his youngest son, Gustav Adolf, the girl being Agnes Adelheid, his daughter, and the older girl being his other daughter Emma. The man was identified as being his nephew, Johann Heinrich.
However, this painting is not a biographical piece. The characters presented in this painting, which can be described both as a landscape and a portrait (as many of Friedrich’s paintings can). The boats are mirrors of the people: the ones closer to the shore are similar to children, in that they don’t travel deep waters yet, while the boat located the furthest represents the old man who, after traveling on deep waters for a very long time, is slowly fading in the sunset.
„Die Lebensstufen” has a great atmosphere, which results from the careful color brushes. The spiritual beatitude conveyed by the painting is realized with the help of the glowing colors. The shades of blue, yellow and orange that fill the sky, we can see some soft gray lines that give a sense of tranquility and calmness. The dark soil is in strong contrast with the bold sky, thus placing the characters between two worlds.
This duality is also visible on a compositional level. The first axis that draws attention is represented by the line drawn by the mast of the biggest ship, which continues with the flag held by the children. Thus, the artist creates a painting where duality is expressed not only through chromatic choices, but also through composition. The dual nature of life, where people live between life and death, and good and evil is also described with the help of the line created by the people, which, when merged visually act like a thread of life, emotions and states. The left and the right of the painting are almost mirrored images, representing curved lines that draw more distant shores, in a way suggesting that we all go through many of the same human experiences.
At a closer look, we can analyze the direction in which the characters look. Thus, while it is not extremely clear, we can notice that the sailors in the first boat are looking at the characters, suggesting in a way the concept of looking back at a time of innocence, of origin, located in time maybe even before birth. The characters on shore, each representing a stage of life, look towards the direction they wish they would go or show an attitude towards the direction they are moving to. Thus, the young woman, who, as a sidebar, is dressed in the same colors as the children, looks towards them, caring for them, while the children are immersed in their own world. The younger man is facing the old man angrily and makes a hand gesture that can be interpreted in more ways: is he accepting him, is he telling him to stay there? The old man, while we cannot see his face can be described as serene, due to his posture. Moreover, he is the only character that seems to be detached from the group.
Next to them, we can see an upside down boat, which most likely symbolizes the generations to come.
For a more in-depth analysis of any cultural product, we must take a look at the cultural and political context in which it was made. Thus, the first thing we notice is the Swedish flag. Knowing that the painting is set in Germany, Sweden is the country on the other shore. This country has had a very important role in the history of the town of Greifswald. Caspar David Friedrich considered himself to be half Swedish, as when he was born, Greifswald was part of Sweden. From a compositional point of view, the flag is placed at the very center of the painting. This can be interpreted as being a symbol for the concept of home. With the risk of pushing the boundaries of interpretation, the flag gives circularity to the painting. Because the flag is present before the sea and the actual country of Sweden is across the sea, the image may be indicating that we start from a symbolic „home” and end up at a physical „home”.
The artist uses a common theme, namely a maritime theme to speak about life as a journey, as a sea exploration and as a symbolic fishing experience. Thus, Friedrich invites the viewer to join him in a thoughtful contemplation on the nature of life, exploring the depths of the human soul.
Merging hope, happiness, sadness and a strong longing for the ethereal, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting is a masterpiece of the world’s visual culture.