Caspar David Friedrich - his painting ‘Die Lebensstufen’ (1835)

4th September 2010
The 19th century German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) has always been a great favourite of mine. I want to look at his painting called Lebensstufen (The Stages of Life) which he painted in 1835.
old painting show ships sailing out with people on shore watching
The Stages of Life (Lebensstufen), 1835.
The title was not given to the work by the artist himself, by the way, but appeared a little later. His age when he conceived and painted, 61, it is important, however, because it is a work of retrospection, looking back on the various stages of life from childhood to old age and inevitably trying to find some significance to the passage of time and the subject of mortality.

The composition

Friedrich's work is typically of large landscapes with small human figures immersed in the scene. They are deeply allegorical and contemplative compositions, evoking an emotional response in the viewer and a sense of awe. Typical subject matter would include seascapes, ships, gothic ruins, winter trees, mountains and woods. And almost always a figure will be set amid the grandeur of the surroundings. The Moon is also often featured. The mystical nature of his work is very strong, and yet never overstated. Even from our rather cynical 21st century standpoint, it's Gothic Romanticism never comes across as foolish or melodramatic.
19th-century German gentleman in profile, hair forward swept, fair
A portrait of Friedrich around the time of the painting, 1836, by Carl Johann Baehr
And so to this painting - one of numerous seascapes that he produced in his lifetime. But in a sense this particular piece is a summation of all of them.

Lebensstufen - what is happening?

Friedrich has placed a number of figures, rather like a family group in the centre of the painting. They are out for a stroll or picnic on the seashore perhaps - five people in all, of various ages. We have two small children, one perhaps a little older than the other; a young woman; a middle aged man and finally an elderly gentleman. The vessels out on the water are also five in number, consisting of two small boats that would not venture far from the shore, and three larger ocean-going ships. Their square rigging is presented head-on to us (the centre vessel in particular), suggestive of the Christian cross and redemptive symbolism.
detail from old painting showing figures on a sea-shore with ships in background
Detail from the central part of the painting.
The children at play have a resonance in the two small in-shore boats, cavorting and sailing close to the protection of the shore. The ship in the centre, meanwhile, is majestic in appearance and could be anchored, suggesting the self-confidence of the young woman. She is the focus of the family unit. The two gentlemen, meanwhile, one clearly much older than the other, find their resonance in the two more-distant vessels. These are seen sailing out towards the horizon and to infinity. We are reminded that death is the inevitable outcome of life, therefore. But it is also represented here as a voyage, perhaps even one of discovery, sailing out towards an infinite space.
postage stamp, German, showing painting of ships and shore with figures
1974 German Postage Stamp of the Lebensstufen.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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