When I started planning our road trip through Northern and Eastern Germany, I realized that many of the destinations I picked were places that had a link to Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Him being one of my favorite painters, our trip was soon named the Caspar David Friedrich pilgrimage.
Admittedly, our first stop had little to do with CDF, but I’d like to mention it anyhow: the beautiful city of Eisenach with the Wartburg castle looking over it. This was where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1521/22 and supposedly threw a bottle of ink at the devil when the latter came visit him in his study. In 1207, a minstrel contest known as the Sängerkrieg took place in and around the Wartburg, legend says. The castle itself is adorned with beautiful frescoes by Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871). The oldtown of Eisenach is as gorgeous as German oldtowns can be, and the surrounding nature is great to wander through. With attractions named Dragon Gorge and Fairy Cave to hike to in the Mariental valley, anyone with a thing for fairy tales would love to wander around this area.
Eisenach thus was more than a convenient stopover between Munich and Hamburg, our next destination. First thing we did when we arrived in Germany’s second largest city was pay a visit to the Kunsthalle, a museum founded in 1850. It houses a wonderful collection of seven centuries of art, of which I especially love the 19th century section. The Kunsthalle is where Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous work resides: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). This piece, which with dimensions of 94.8 x 74.8 cm is rather small indeed, but its composition really draws you into that mysterious rocky landscape covered in fog, wondering what the future has in store but realizing you can’t ever foresee. No wonder it is often considered the most representative work of the Romantic era. It was a breathtaking experience to see it in that room, surrounded by other beautiful CDF landscapes.
After stops in Lübeck, a gorgeous Hanseatic old town, and Schwerin with its overwhelming castle, we arrived on Rügen island. Located in the Baltic Sea, it is Germany’s largest island by area and a popular travel destination. The landscape is characterized by sandy beaches, headlands, lagoons, bays, forests, and of course the chalk cliffs in the Jasmund National Park in the northeast of the island. Caspar David Friedrich visited the isle six times during his lifetime to wander around nature, drawing and painting the landscape several times. The exact spot where he based his famous painting Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) cannot be found: first of all, trees have grown, erosion has done its work over the past two centuries, and it is likely CDF combined sketches from different spots into one painting as he often did. Nevertheless, the coastline with the cliffs is spectacular to look at from all points of perspective. We walked above them, strolled along them on the beach and took a boat trip to see them from the water.
Caspar David Friedrich’s childbed stood on the mainland, roughly 85 km down south from the chalk cliffs. The Hanseatic city of Greifswald now lies in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, but was in the hands of the Kingdom of Sweden until 1815. This explains why the children in the painting The Stages of Life (1834) hold a Swedish flag: this is a reminder of Friedrich’s origins.
Friedrich was born in Greifswald on September 5th, 1774. Caspar David’s father, the soap worker Gottlieb Adolf Friedrich, bought the house which is very close to the St Nikolai Church and the premises in 1765. All these were owned by the Friedrich family for more than 200 years and their name can still be read on the façade. Parts of the family’s old soap works have stood the test of time. The buildings are now home to the Caspar David Friedrich Centre, which is open to visitors who can there learn more about the painter’s origins and his life through a documentary film.
The nearby market square still resembles the one that Friedrich painted in watercolour in 1818. The Pomeranian State Museum holds seven of his paintings and a large collection of drawings. Unfortunately, their art gallery was under construction and not all of the works could be on display. Greifswald seems to be very aware of its famous former citizen: the first thing we saw upon entering the city was an electrical enclosure with graffiti art dedicated to him.
A few kilometers from Greifswald city center lay the ruins of Eldena Abbey, a monastery built on the turn of the 12th and 13th century. When the Reformation was introduced into Pomerania, the abbey was dissolved in 1535. The buildings were severely damaged during the Thirty Years' War and derelict during the Swedish occupation (1648–1815). Bricks were taken away to build fortifications. Friedrich often used the ruin in his works: he created several drawings, watercolours and oil paintings that feature the remains of Eldena.
Saxon Switzerland is a national park around the Elbe valley not far from Dresden in Saxony. Together with Bohemian Switzerland in the Czech Republic it forms the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. The rock formations are majestic and a feast to wander along – something Caspar David Friedrich seems to have enjoyed. His famous work, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), is composed of various elements from this area, of which Friedrich drew sketches between 1808 and 1813.
If you like hiking, you can walk the 112 km Malerweg hiking trail, part of which overlaps the Caspar-David-Friedrich walking path which takes you from Bad Schandau to the Kaiserkrone.
At the foot of the rock formation known as Kaiserkrone lay the rocks on which the Wanderer stands and looks over the Elbe valley. Friedrich sketched this formation in 1813, when he stayed with a friend that lived in Krippen and used it for his masterpiece that he finished 5 years after. Another element that can be found in the painting is the Zirkelstein table hill (in the background on the right side). The closer formation on the left side is the Gamrig near Rathen, showing the typical sandstone formations similar to those at the Bastei. The Neurathener Rock Gate, to where the Bastei bridge leads today, is the subject on the 1823 oil painting Felsenlandschaft im Elbsandsteingebirge (in which he just left out the bridge for a wilder effect) as well as on the 1826-28 watercolour The Rock Gates in Neurathen.
Caspar David Friedrich worked in Dresden most of his life, and this is where he died. We decided shorthand to visit the Trinitatis Cemetery where he was buried in 1840. The grave is very simple, and time has taken its toll on the tomb stone, but his name can still be read.
The Gallery Neue Meister holds a lot of Friedrich’s works, among them the Cross in the Mountains (1808) altar piece, Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819-20), and the Ostra-Gehege (1832). We didn't visit the museum this time, but I adored these works when we spent a weekend in Dresden in winter 2018.
All photographs by me except the exterior of CDF's house in Greifswald.