Review of Caspar Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
By: Michael A. Arnold

"I gazed—and gazed—but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought" William Wordsworth

The Wanderer stands at the top of a mountain. He's looking down on the earth below. The wind is blowing his hair, but he is too impressed to notice it. The tiredness is making his legs feel heavy, but he does not think about that either. Instead he puts his foot up onto a slightly higher hunk of rock, and it somehow makes him feel closer to the scene before him: a huge, mountain-surrounded valley coated in mist, under a cloudy sky. It is easy to imagine the smile on his face.

This is a brief sketch of Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (or, in the original German, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), now regarded as one of the central masterpieces of Romantic art. When this was painted in 1818, the Romanticism movement had taken firm hold of Europe. This is not 'romanticism', being just concerned with love and romance, 'Romanticism' was an intellectual and philosophical movement that changed the way people thought and saw the world around them, and was a stark reaction against the rationalism and industrialisation of the time. Opposed to the Enlightenment, which came before and is so often defined with a concern with rationality, science, and revolutionary ideas like liberalism, Romanticism is often defined as the opposite: an interest in the natural world, strong emotions and 'feeling', melancholia, horror, the supernatural, and the wildness of the soul.

There were two phases, or waves, of Romanticism, and this can most easily be seen (in the English-speaking world) through the poets of the time. Everything typical about the first phase is embodied by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Both poets had a heavy emphasis on nature, using it in various ways, such as to talk around the wild savagery of the world, rural people's reaction to modernity, or just for the sake of describing a beautiful landscape. There is also a careful, philosophical mood in a lot of their work, and an interest in old stories and legends. In Germany, Friedrich's homeland, Romanticism was also strongly influenced by Johann Wolfgang Goethe and was (even more explicitly than in England) about travel, deep forests, myths, and intense emotions. This was the general atmosphere that Caspar David Friedrich was working in. By 1818 that first wave largely over, a new wave would soon come to prominence that was more arabesque. and much darker and Gothic in tone (take for an example writers like Lord Byron and Percy Shelley) but for the time being the Romantic zeitgeist was still focused on that earlier, passionate interest in, beauty, high emotions and nature that someone like Wordsworth seems to embody.

Nature is, and always has been, essentially untameable by humans, as is (and this was perhaps the central idea in the philosophy of Romanticism) it is just as untameable as the human soul. It is easy to say that nature is beautiful, but it is impossible to say why it is beautiful – or what 'beauty' itself is. To the Romantics, 'beauty' mysterious and inexplicable, but is identifiable by the individual's reaction to it. Caspar Friedrich even said as much when he said 'The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him'. Sometimes what an artist says about art in should probably inform our view of their own art, meaning this painting is not just a reflection of what the painter saw in his mind's eye – it has something to do with the way he saw the world and art itself.

The wanderer we see in the painting is in quite dangerous territory: being on the top of a mountain and looking at the world below, he is both above nature in one sense, and in another he is alone, only a tiny speck in the middle of a vast and wild world – and these two perspectives are very much in contradiction. However one viewer sees this will come down to their own individual perspective, or how this makes them 'feel'. Is the wanderer standing with a triumphant 'I've just climbed this difficult mountain, brilliant!' pose, or is he simply admiring the grandiosity of nature – away from civilization and all its comforts? There may not be one correct answer to this, but is instead left open to interpretation. There might have been if we could see the wanderer's face, and so a glimpse of what he might be thinking, but we cannot – because in a sense it does not matter what he is thinking – it is for us to intuit through 'feeling' his pose and what we feel about everything before him. One critic, Michael Gorra, suggests that the wanderer is not looking directly at nature itself, but instead he is looking into the murky unknown and he is gazing into it defiantly, for him the fog is not nature, but is a metaphor. This is an example of what Romantic art and poetry was attempting to do, to make the viewer 'feel' the work, and bring their own attitudes to it, rather than have it be rationally explainable or a representation of something culturally significant.

With its defiance of interpretation, but instead trusting the viewer's own souls are just as untamed and unique as the mountains surrounding the wanderer, it is easy to see why this is seen as a masterwork of the Romanticist movement. In a sense, we are all wanderers in life, trying to admire the views while standing on the mountainside. What the wanderer in the painting is thinking when he looks on the scene might be different from what we see of the same thing, and perhaps ultimately it does not matter what the image 'means'. This painting has something about it that is powerful and unforgettable, and can be appreciated even without thought or interpretation. Just as Wordsworth says in the quote prefacing this article, sometimes what we think is not as interesting as what we feel.

Mountains and high places would become important to the Romanticism that would follow, and since Romanticism had such a profound influence on the development of European thought and art then it is worth looking into an example of exactly how this influence was felt by later writers and thinkers. Just one example will suffice: when Fredrick Nietzsche began working on his major philosophical works his main home was the Alps. He was consciously trying to get away from everything conventional, and find true isolation so he could see the world for how it really was, and trying to think about the things that in civilised society might even be off-limits. Nietzsche is often considered one of the foundational thinkers of the modern world, and in his late book Ecce Homo, not published until 1908, he says the following while walking in the mountains, trying to think:

The ice is near, the solitude tremendous—but how calmly all things lie in the light! How freely one breathes! How much one feels beneath oneself! Philosophy, as I have so far understood and lived it, means living voluntarily among ice and high mountains—seeking out everything strange and questionable in existence.

I wanted to highlight this passage in particular because it shows the influence of Romanticism on Nietzsche's work and philosophy because it is a good way or showing how Romanticism often 'feels'. It is supposed to be dangerous, strange, and yet intensely concerned with the world, and it is something we would do well to understand when we are viewing this painting.