Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is an oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich, who is considered one of the most important German artists of the 19th century. It was painted circa 1818 and is also known as the Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape or Wanderer above the Mist.
The painting is widely known as one of the greatest and most popular works of Romanticism. It is also thought to be one that represents Friedrich’s style the most.
The oil painting shows a lone man, dressed formally in boots and a dark green overcoat, holding a walking cane and looking out over a cloudy, inhospitable landscape from an outcropping of dark, craggy rocks. His back is to the viewer. His dark brown hair tousled by the wind and his left hand resting on his left knee, the man stands perfectly still above what appears to be a tumultuous swirling of clouds beneath his feet.
In front of the subject, the vast landscape flows on, concluding with hazy mountains and a light-filled rosy sky filled with wisps of mist and puffs of white clouds in the background. As the figure looks out over the terrain, the viewer senses not just the calm and quiet of the man’s solitude, but also the sheer and somewhat terrifying power of nature.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog currently hangs in the Kunsthalle Hamburg, one of the largest museums in Germany. It is an iconic image that has graced the cover of the 1990 book The Ideology of the Aesthetic by Terry Eagleton and an album of Franz Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie by classical pianist Maurizio Pollini, among other things.
Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog: Context and story
The breathtaking landscape in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is composed of several elements that actually exist in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, a mountain range hugging the border between Saxony in Germany and the Bohemian region in the Czech Republic. Before he painted it, Friedrich traveled to these mountains and sketched what he saw around him in meticulous detail. For the composition, he cobbled together the individual rocks and forms that he observed, creating an imaginary landscape.
For example, the mountain to the left in the background is either the Kaltenberg or the Rosenberg. The one to the right in the background is most likely the Zirkelstein. The rocky forms to the left in the middle ground seem to be patterned after the Gamrig in the village of Rathen, while the rocky outcropping on which the subject stands in the foreground seem to represent the Kaiserkrone.
Some art scholars have noted that the meaning of the artwork may have gotten lost in the translation. Its German title is Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. The German “wanderer” can be translated in English as “wanderer” or, simply, “hiker.”
It has also been noted that this painting influenced those in the West to view mountain-climbing as an activity to be admired.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog seems to convey a sense of self-reflection, which is depicted in how the subject gazes out into the veils of fog and seems to be in deep contemplation. Some scholars see it as a metaphor for an unresolved future, while others take it as symbolic of how man is ultimately insignificant in the face of a majestic and powerful nature.
The lone subject is turned away from the viewer. Instead of using the man’s facial expression to set the mood, Friedrich uses the landscape, creating a sense of awe and mystery with the shifting clouds and the terrain partially hidden by the mist. In contrast to the dark and gloomy foreground, the background shows a sky that is lighter and almost pink-ish, suggesting a lighter mood.
Instead of the more typical horizontal layout, Friedrich uses a vertical orientation. He reinforces this with the man’s upright stance and with the triangular rock on which the man stands. This highlights the man’s connection to the heavens and suggests that Friedrich may have aimed to produce a Christian artwork without including traditionally Christian elements in the painting.
Alternatively, the mood and symbolism of the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog also support the idea that it is a commentary on the relationship between man and nature. The subject’s position at the top of the craggy outcropping is a perfect perch for communing with nature. But it also says something about his view on nature — perhaps as being superior to it.
The slopes of the mountains in the far distance converge around the figure, as though attempting to make him a part of the majestic landscape. The wind blows his hair and the mist beneath his feet swirls in a dense, murky fog, showing the forces of nature. Meanwhile, the subject, dressed in the clothes of a nobleman, conveys intellectualism and looks somewhat defenseless in the face of it all.
Many of those who have studied this painting say that it may be a self-portrait and/or that the grand but inscrutable landscape may have been intended as a psychological portrait. Friedrich certainly wanted the viewer to identify with the solitary subject. Because he placed the viewer directly behind the man, we see what the man sees.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is very similar to Friedrich’s other works, specifically The Sea of Ice (1823-1824) and Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (c. 1818).
A similar painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), shows a “halted traveller” or a lone figure stopping in his tracks and having an epiphany. Like Friedrich did, Munch used a vertical orientation in The Scream and depicted a hostile landscape.
Unlike Friedrich’s Wanderer, who has his back to the viewer, Munch’s subject faces and confronts the viewer and practically forces the viewer to focus on the emotion on his face instead of the landscape. In Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, the landscape commands nearly as much attention as the mysterious subject.
Artsy.net. (2018, August 6) Unraveling the Mysteries behind Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer.” Retrieved from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-unraveling-mysteries-caspar-david-friedrichs-wanderer
Scholastic Art. (n.d.) Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1817. Retrieved from https://art.scholastic.com/pages/topics/posters/wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fog-friedrich.html
TheArtStory.com. (n.d.) Caspar David Friedrich. Retrieved from https://www.theartstory.org/artist-friedrich-caspar-david-artworks.htm