Darkness, emotions, and mysticism—these are just some of the terms that can be used to describe Friedrich’s “The Monk by the Sea. ” Produced in 1809, this oil on canvass ideally characterizes the period to which the artist belongs: the Romanticism. With its subject, color, style, and theme, the artist successfully evokes the main tenets common during the Romantic Age. Formalist and thematic analyses of the work can lead modern viewers to a better understanding of the work and the message that the artist wants to convey. Brief Background
Caspar David Friedrich was a German painter born in 1774 in Greifswald, Germany. Despite poverty, the artist received formal art study from artist Johann Gottfried Quistorp, who conducted art sessions outdoors. Exposure to the local color and environment thus helped the artist master the art of landscape. His paintings, which generally reveal tenets of the Romantic Age, make him “one of the most important artists during his time. ” (Vaughan, 1972, 65). Particularly, as Murray (2004, 338) notes, his landscapes direct “the viewer’s gaze towards… metaphysical dimension”.
His seascape titled, “Monk by the Sea” won admiration even from the 15-year-old King Frederick III Wilhelm of Prussia, whose purchase in 1810 declared the artist’s work as his masterpiece. Analysis of Form A formalist analysis of the painting suggests the artist’s overall craftsmanship. Minimalism best defines the style that the artist employed in his work. Basically, the image of the monk, which appears very minimal and solitary, helps achieve emphasis on the subject.

The minimalist use of a variety of colors for the whole background readily implies the contrast between darkness and light that the artist wants to portray. Specifically, the submission of darkness to light or vice versa narrows down the color and texture of the painting. This minimalism of color and structure thus allows the author to present some characteristics ideal to Romantic art. The whole image can be divided horizontally into three different parts, namely, the sky, the sea, and the land.
The great expanse of the sky, which covers at least “five-sixths of the canvass” (Web Gallery of Art, n. d. ), attracts attention considering the light it sheds on the whole image. Through devoting much space to the sky, the artist achieves artistic drama, which is very typical of the Romantic Movement. Specifically, the center clouds where a rich combination of colors is applied, capture the motion of light breaking into the darkness and at the same time the darkness eating up the light. Such drama found in nature suggests some Romantic thoughts that draw out sentimentality from the audience.
Depicting the sea with great darkness, Friedrich made it a point to limit this part to at least one-eights of the canvass. This allows the other images, such as the sky, the land, and the monk to take form, while it allows the purpose of showing the location of the monk at the same time. On the one hand, the element of darkness suggests the artist’s tendency to contemplate on the darkness of nature and its mystery. On the other, it also suggests the themes of death and the obscure, which other painters similarly dealt on during this time (i. e. Goya, Delaroix). The monk standing by the sea seems lost and forlorn, thus unable to see the great storm coming. In a description by Marie von Kugelgen, one of Friedrich’s followers, the lady wrote to her friend Friederike Volkmann: “A vast endless expanse of sky … still, no wind, no moon, no storm – indeed a storm would have been some consolation for then one would at least see life and movement… On the unending sea there is no boat, no ship, not even a sea monster, [which] make the loneliness even more desolate and horrible” (Web Gallery of Art).
This clearly shows the initial attention that the work garnered from the public. Widely recognized for the great landscapes he formerly depicted, the artist must have surprised his followers with the dark portrayal of the sea coupled by the view of the monk who seems to submit himself unrelentingly to the vast rupturing sky and the deep dark sea in front of him. Nevertheless, the purchase of King Frederick III Wilhelm helped the work gain much favor it deserved. Later on, Clemens Brentano’s description of the work suggests the acceptance of the work by the public.
From the horrible experience the work evoked in Kugelgen, Brentano notes the splendid, infinite loneliness of the monk by the shore (Held, 2003). This shows the public’s appreciation of the work, following its acceptance by the king. In Brentano’s critique, we may note the contemporary viewer’s appreciation of the work, despite the loneliness it presents. This also shows the ability of the viewer to relate to the monk’s experience, thus reflecting the positive attitude toward the theme of death, which other Romantic artists and writers demonstrate in their works.
Further to the thematic analysis of the work, one can perceive the artist’s idea of communing with nature. The idea of the monk leaving the monastery in order to enjoy or contemplate the quietness and simplicity of nature strongly suggests a Romantic attitude. However, aside from portraying the greatness of nature, the view also shows that while the Romanticists regard nature as beautiful and powerful, they also view it with “sensuous nuance. ” The dark colors of the sky and the sea imply the coming of a destructive storm.
This reflects Friedrich’s attempt to break the usual concept of a beautiful sky at midday. Anticipating the great storm, the audience may feel a certain concern for the monk, some anxiety that destructs quiet contemplation. In addition, the combination of darkness and light yields the artist’s spontaneity and freedom. Since the monk is the only figure meant to appear at vertical angle, the rest of the image appears to be painted with free hand and brushstrokes that conjure at some point with a vanishing effect in the light colors of the sky.
Furthermore, the solitariness of the monk asserts the Romantic idea of individualism. Using the monk as subject reveals Friedrich’s attempt to explore on the thoughts and emotions of a common man. Normally looked upon for their wisdom and strength, the image of the monk amid the darkness and light somehow distracts the idea of perfection among the religious members of the society. This characteristic adheres to the Romantic Age by the artist’s “rejection of traditional values of social structure and religion. (Worldwide Art Resources Web Site, n. d. ) Through the use of nature, the artist reveals the monk’s seeming confusion and loneliness as he casts view at the sea. Although the audience may have different perceptions of the experience that the monk undergoes, the image nevertheless suggests the imperfection in the life of a monk, the loneliness that they undergo, and the need to take part in the usual activity of nature. Centering on a single hero, the work portrays the individual struggle of every monk.
By making the monk turn his back from the audience, the artist portrays his contemplation. More importantly, however, this portrayal makes the monk anonymous. Depicting a monk in this way makes his experience—his struggles and loneliness—universal in nature. It also suggests the commonness of the place, the scenery, and the emotion, to which viewers can possibly relate. Brentano’s description of the work reflects the artist’s successful attempt to make the meaning universal.
According to the author, the scenery allows the viewers to relate to the scene, making one feel that “one has gone there, that one must return, that one would like to cross over…” This implies that despite the centrality of the work to the image of the monk, the audience can still relate to the contemplative experience that Friedrich depicts. The universality of the subject and the surroundings makes one long to reflect on a similar struggle the audience may have had at certain points in their lives.
Another Romantic characteristic that the work reflects is the artist’s interest in the mystical aspect of life, which he portrays through the mysterious and vast skies and the dark sea. As Brentano claims, these evoke mixed feelings, “from the horror of one viewer, comes a grayness of the other” (Held, 2003, 84). Such combination of emotions that the artist draws from the audience signifies its successful portrayal of the mystical motifs in life, such as the union between darkness and light, the Apocalyptic view of the skies, and the solitude that such a view creates in everyone who witnesses it.
Showing the figure of the monk amid the chaotic tendency of nature suggests the mystic relation among God’s creation. Overall, the structure and theme that Friedrich employs in his work consistently reflect valuable characteristics of Romantic art. Up to now, the darkness, emotions, and mysticism that the artist projects through his choice of subject, color combination, tone and structure still provide the modern audience with the same experience that viewers of the painting had in 1809.

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