A lone figure, dressed elegantly in black, looks out across what appears to be a storm-tossed sea. The cragged mountain rocks beneath his feet are reflected by peaks which loom, sentinel-like, in the distance, and as our eye moves upwards to meet his line of sight, we realise that what we assumed to be the spray of the ocean was in fact waves of mist, rising like veils across the landscape. This is the subject of Caspar David Friedrich’s awe-inspiring and genre-defining painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818); the quintessential masterpiece of German Romantic art, and unquestionably one of the most evocative and instantly recognisable paintings of the 19th century.
With his dramatic subject matter, deft brushstrokes, and muted, whimsical palette, Caspar David Friedrich managed to lay down the foundations - in one single painting - of what would become one of the most important artistic movements since the Renaissance. German Romanticism was something completely new; it revelled in the poetic, it preceded the psychological, and it forged links between the material world and the spiritual realm with obvious glee and a sense of longing hitherto unexplored in painting, sculpture, literature, or music. As German Romantic art once more sends waves through the fine art industry (thanks to a series of high profile and record-breaking auction prices), the public are, once again, falling in love with this most breathtaking of art schools.
Here at Christian Berlin, we feel the resonance and ripples caused by the German Romantics more than most. The close and potent connections between science, nature, and the metaphysical, the celebration of beauty and the mysteries of the human visage, and the combination of technical brilliance with artistic and creative flourishes… such things are evident in our skincare products, and form the foundations of our approach to beauty and our quest for perfection.
With this in mind, let’s part the mists, cast light into the gloom, and explore seven pearls of wisdom about the German Romantics, and discover facts you may not have known about this most fascinating, influential, and seductive home-grown artistic movement.
At the turn of the 19th century, European art, architecture, music, literature, poetry, and society in general was in thrall to Neo-Classicism. It was the height of the age of enlightenment; science had triumphed over nature, man’s mastery of the world he inhabited seemed complete, and the golden age of Ancient Greek mathematics, Roman engineering, and Hellenistic advances in philosophy and the natural sciences had returned in a blaze of glory.
However, it was also a time marred by warfare, bloodshed, and the oncoming - and seemingly unstoppable - march of industrialisation. Young artists of the age saw the suffering around them as a symptom of the Neo-Classical age, and longed for a reaction to the so-called era of reason. In Germany, especially, this longing was especially piquant, and it led to the rise of German Romanticism as a new way of seeing man’s place amid the natural world, and under the watchful eye of the unknowable and the divine.
The German Romantics believed that the age in which they lived was marred by the mechanisation of life, the hurried pace of industrialised cities, and the crowded, smog-filled, poverty-stricken urbanisation of existence. They felt that a simpler, more honest, more rustic age needed to be remembered, and through their art, they could celebrate the spiritual over the mundane, and freedom over authority. In this sense, German Romantics shared their viewpoint and their way of working with other movements all across Europe - perhaps most notably, the Arts and Crafts movement in the UK, where an almost medievalist spirit was elevated as the highest ideal of artistry. German Romanticism was about recalling the simplicity and decency of a pre-industrialised world, and recognising the majesty of a time when man could lose himself in the wilderness, guided by the stars.
Romanticism was by no means only evident and blossoming in Germany in the early 19th century, and many would argue that its most lasting manifestations arose in France and England at a similar time. However, art historians roundly agree that the spiritual home of Romanticism was in Germany, where distinct schools of thought and individual artistic movements came together to create a world-altering whole.
The earliest German Romantic art originated in the Protestant north of the country, where Sturm und Drang pioneers such as the Shlegel brothers and Novalis explored the depths of profound emotion and the power of solitary exploration. However, in the south of Germany, artistic movements such as the Nazarenes utilised Christian imagery in new ways, experimenting with naturalistic expressions of divinity to communicate the angst of the age. While Classicism in the country at the time was based on calm and order, German Romanticism established a tempestuous, restless, and indefinite sense of longing - a quest for the unknown, the unknowable, the interior world, and the infinite beyond… and manifested this search in oil on canvas with the Germanic wilderness as its enigmatic backdrop.
The divine was notably absent in the majority of Neo-Classical art in Germany in the 1800s; man’s power and infallibility was all-encompassing. The German Romantics fervently believed in divinity and the spiritual, yet they understood that there was little scope in a new artistic movement which rehashed over-familiar biblical stories. Instead, they worshipped nature as the ultimate expression of godliness; mountains, lakes, forests, stormy seas, and endless skies lit by blazing sunlight were where God could be discovered, and where restless mankind could finally find his peace. Nature’s beauty was all the nourishment the soul could need, and to seek out the divine in the natural world through art was the highest calling of the movement.
Early Romantic painting was centred in Dresden, home to Phillip Otto Runge (whose floral paintings appear positively modern, even by today’s standards), and the aforementioned father of German Romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich. The work of these two men and their Dresden contemporaries were based almost entirely on solitary reflections of nature, and the irresistable pull of nebulous, enigmatic landscapes.
However, the Dresden Romantics were but one school of thought and artistry amid many in Germany at the time. Along with the Nazarenes, the other most prominent group from the Catholic south of Germany was the Lukasbruder, whose work was more figural, and was strongly inspired by Medieval artists and the Old Masters. The south of Germany was also home to Joseph Anton Koch; another hugely influential German Romantic, whose paintings depicted nature as a source of freedom, inspiration, and divine order.
The Romantics in Germany were not just painters and sculptors. Indeed, poetry, plays, and music were all also key aspects of the movement, and they often fed into each other and complemented each other in spectacular and moving ways. Ludwig Richter is a great example of this; his paintings were directly inspired by the poets he surrounded himself with, and he created stunning figural and pastoral works based upon retellings of folk legends, contemporary plays, and pieces of music created by his fellow Romantics.
It goes without saying that every artistic movement eventually feeds into and inspires another, but the impact that the German Romantics had upon late 19th century and early 20th century art is often greatly overlooked. Indeed, one can see a clear lineage from Impressionist painters such as Degas and Monet to the great German Romantics, evident in the nebulous skyscapes, the blueish middle-distance, and misty mountains seen in works such as Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. John Constable could be heralded as the link between the two movements; his novel landscapes and blending of colour was clearly inspired by German Romantic painting, and he in turn had a clear impact on the way Impressionists approached their own paintings of nature.
Christian Berlin has scoured the globe, seeking out the rarest treasures of nature in the form of minerals, extracts, and ingredients with unique beautifying properties. In this sense, and in the way that Christian Berlin products enhance and highlight natural beauty from within, the skincare products we have innovated take their place amid the heritage established by the German Romantics. Beauty is divine, and nature is precious and endlessly inspirational. Let’s continue our quest for perfection, and give thanks to the wisdom and insight of Germany’s unique artistic vision.