Art Critique: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

The work of fine art I chose to critique is one of my all-time favorite pieces of art, the painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. Completed in 1818, the oil painting is representative of the German Romantic era; it depicts a man in a coat with a cane standing on a rocky outcropping with his back turned gazing out at a violent, foggy sea. Recognized throughout the entire world, it is one of the most famous and iconic Romantic paintings.

I enjoy this painting for many reasons. I believe it captures the spirit of romanticism while also incorporating its own distinctly German elements to it — if you have even a shallow familiarity with art history, you look at it and just know it’s German. Also, there’s simply the pure aesthetic appeal of the painting: it’s interesting to look at and the suggestions it makes captivates the imagination.

Other than the man, the entire scene of the painting shows the brutal might of nature: restless waves colliding with jagged rocks below a treacherous cloud of fog, the sea reaching out beyond the line of sight with ominous mountains looming in the distance. People nowadays naively clamor to protect the environment without realizing that if it came down to it, mankind is no match for nature, nature poses a bigger threat to us as a species than we could ever hope to pose to the environment. We continue to exist in spite of nature — if mother nature really wanted to, she could wipe us off the face of the planet with a single sweep.

One can’t look at the painting without instinctively putting yourself in the man’s shoes and imagining how small he must feel before such a vast and immense display of environment. However, the man stands with confidence before all this, almost as if he has no regard for the hazard around him. This juxtaposition shows how small mankind is on a cosmic scale, while paying homage to man’s defiant instincts and tendency to try to shape the world for his own anyways.

Four elements that could be used to critique this painting are color scheme, space, the positioning of the man, and environment portrayed.

The painting is particularly gray, with little variation, giving it a somber, almost ominous atmosphere. The rocks, mountains, and fog are gray, and while the water is a deep blue, the splashing of waves is grayish white, further adding to the grayness. The sky is cloudy, so it too is gray. The man is wearing black pants and a black coat with a white shirt collar exposed, and has blonde hair. I think the extensive use of gray is meant to give ambiguity to the scene and over-exaggerate the fogginess of the area.

I touched on the spacing a little bit earlier. The waves and fog blur the line of the horizon, so it’s hard to tell where the sea ends and the mountains begin; the fog also contributes to distorting the viewer’s depth perception. This gives the feeling that the sea so vast that it can’t be clearly observed, and also emphasizes the great vastness of nature compared to the minute blip of existence that is mankind.

The man has his back turned so that his face cannot be seen. I think this is so that the viewer can put himself in the man’s spot and imagine himself there. In regards to my interpretation of the painting’s meaning, I think his back is turned because it doesn’t matter who he is because man has always arisen to the challenge of conquering nature. He is everyone, he is all of mankind, which has also taken the first steps down bold new roads and embraced the uncertainty of brave new ideas.

The environment of the painting was chosen to perfectly illustrate the order of man against a chaotic background. A violent, foggy sea is the harshest environment man could face, it could swallow you up in an instance and you would be gone forever without the slightest trace, lost for eternity to the treacherous waters. The sea also alludes to the bold spirit of sea travelers who explored new lands, conquering nature, exerting their will over it, daring to tread forth toward a fresh frontier, bravely going where no man had gone before.

A noble testament to the adventurous spirit of mankind, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich is a timeless painting that has inspired generations of innovators and explorers. As long as there is humanity in our hearts, we will leave no stone unturned in our epic quest to master God’s creation around us.