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This paper predominantly analyzes Casper David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea (1808-1809)with regard to the circumstances of the artist’s life which are relevant to understanding the work; the commissioning of the work for a particular place or work; subject; literary sources; content; style; historical context; and formal sources in earlier or contemporary forms of art.

1. The Artist

The circumstances of the artist’s life are extremely relevant to understanding this piece of artwork. It is evident from Friedrich’s symbolic and subjective works that evoke the emotional response towards nature that his primary interest was to  contemplate nature, . In addition, Friedrich embarked on the placement of human presence amidst expansive landscapes, a typical characteristic of The Monk by the Sea. Also Caspar had a religious background since he perceived the natural world as a revelation of God; this was a dominant theme in most of his works, especially in The Monk by the Sea. There is a dramatic contrast between the immenseness of pantheistic God and the inestimable smallness of creatures in this painting. Therefore, his religious background makes a significant contribution to the understanding of its themes. The melancholy and loneliness in this painting can be attributed to his childhood events and his inclined personality, as it is evident from the portrayal of the human miniature in natural world.

2. The Patron

The Monk by the Sea was not painted for specific patrons; it was produced in Caspar’s studio and then sent directly to   Berlin Academy exhibition in 1810. There is likelihood that the painting was commissioned for the Baltic shore, which indicates the hope of resurrection in its bright skies, contrary to the dark clouds looming above the figure on the shore. The painting was later purchased by Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.  Friedrich composed and painted most of his works in his studio using free hand plein air sketches. In order to achieve an expressive composition the artist also incorporated very evocative elements in this painting. The composition indicates a reductive process because Friedrich removed some elements from the canvas after its completion. The modification of details continued up to its exhibition, although he maintained the basic composition. The reductive process was possible because there was no specific patron for the painting.

3. Subject

The painting is certainly a masterpiece of Friedrich’s compositions and depicts a boldest piece within German Romanticism. The main theme is characterized as miniature human figure placed amidst a natural landscape divided into three main horizontal zones of color. The composition of the painting is not consistent with all traditions of landscape paintings. For instance, Friedrich did not incorporate any perspective of depth. At the apex of the painting the miniature human figure in black robes is visible only from behind and it is the only vertical element in the painting. In addition, the painting lacks staff age, this is because the artist painted over two sailing boats that he initially envisioned. There is a meeting point of the extremely low horizons and the cruel dark zone of the sea. It is apparent that all lines head out of the painting, indicating the emphasis on infinity as the key aspect of the painting. Due to this degree of smallness, the viewer reflects upon the dominant power of the universe, as evident in the imagination of the smallness of the monk compared to the expansiveness of the natural world. The sublimity of nature, which he has achieved by either lowering or raising the horizon, is a common subject of Friedrich’s paintings.

4. Literary Sources

The subject depicted in the painting significantly depends on the themes of landscape and sublimity of the natural world. The classical conception embarked on exploring blissful enjoyment of natural view; however, Friedrich started examining the instant of sublimity, which entails a reunion with the spiritual-self using the contemplation of the natural world. Friedrich re-invented the concept by ensuring that the viewer’s use the central figure for contemplation of the natural world; the viewer feels the sublime aspect of nature. In this painting Friedrich used landscape to convey the religious theme, a concept that his contemporaries called religious mysticism.

5. Content

The subject depicted in the painting received numerous responses from other late 19th century painters such as James Abbott McNeil Whistler and Gustave Abbott. For instance, Gustave in the painting The Coast near Palavas depicts similarly exposed lonely seeking figure, who gazing out to the sea. Although Friedrich was a romantic painter, he had considerable influence on the artists from symbolists and expressionists. For instance, Franz Marc’s painting titled Horse in a Landscape (1910) is formally analogous to Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea.Apparently; both paintings make use of simplicity in their compositions, undulating horizontals, and a figure that gazes into the scene in the same position as the viewer. When comparing the painting with the works of Mark Rothko, an abstract expressionist, it becomes evident that Friedrich used shapeless infinities used earlier by the aestheticians of natural sublimity. The miniature monk placed in the painting establishes a sad contrast to the vastness of the natural world, God, and the smallness of his creatures. This creates a perception that human beings themselves are like the monk by the sea.

6. Style

The painting is usually considered as one of the most radical Friedrich’s compositions because he did not take heed of the conventional features associated with landscape paintings. The Monk by the Sea lacks formal consistency with the artist’s work and the works of his contemporaries. For example, the painting lacks the perspective of depth, which is a common characteristic of landscape paintings. In addition, the painting lacks a foreground, which creates a squinting perspective for the viewer. It is apparent that The Monk by the Sea lacks consistent use of formal elements compared with his earlier works and the works of his contemporaries. The only consistent element in the painting with his prior works involves the use of the reverse-facing figure.

7. Formal Sources in Earlier or Contemporary Works of Art

Empathy was a central point in Friedrich’s works because he made use of the Rueckenfigur motif, sometimes called reverse-facing figure. In this motif the viewer places himself in the position of the central figure in order to capture presented in the painting scene. The reverse-facing figure concept was invented in the 17th century by Dutch marine painters, the concept that later become the trademark of Friedrich’s works.

8. Historical Context

The outside persona of the monk in the painting has a political edge. During the early 19th century in Europe, particularly the duchies of the present day Germany, there was anxiety and uncertainty about the new social order associated with the wake of a fallen French monarchy, the ongoing American Revolution, and the ideologies associated with democracy and nationhood. The Napoleon’s troops exercised much control over Europe including the hometown of Friedrich. The monk in the painting appears to convey a message for the attackers to stay away from his turf and his life. This is consistent with the ideals of German nationalism.

9. Summary

The Monk by the Sea is an oil painting done by Caspar David Friedrich between 1808 and 1810. This painting is considered to be the most radical by the artist because it lacked an illusion of depth, a concept that had been a conventional characteristic of the landscape painting. The wide stretches of the sea and sky give an emphasis to the scanty figure of the monk placed amidst the immensity of the presence of God and nature. The circumstances of the artist’s life are extremely relevant to the understanding of this artwork’s piece. The melancholy and loneliness in the painting can be attributed to his childhood events and his inclined personality, as evident in the portrayal of miniature humanity from the natural world. The Monk by the Sea was not painted for specific patrons; this is because it was envisioned in Caspar’s studio and then sent directly to Berlin Academy exhibition in1810. The main theme is characterized a miniature human figure placed amidst a natural landscape and separated into three main horizontal zones of color. Friedrich re-invented the concept by ensuring that the viewer uses the central figure for contemplation with the natural world, wherein he/she feels the adorable aspect of nature. Although Friedrich was a romantic painter, he had considerable influence on the artists from the symbolists’ and expressionists’ eras. For instance, Franz Marc’s painting titled Horse in a Landscape (1910) is formally an analogous to Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea. The painting is usually considered as one of the most radical compositions by Friedrich because he did not take heed of the conventional features associated with landscape paintings. The monk in the painting appears to convey a message for the attackers to stay away from his turf and his life. This is consistent with the ideals of German nationalism. 

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