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Friedrich, The Lone Tree

Caspar David Friedrich, Solitary Tree (or Lone Tree), 1822, oil on canvas, 55 x 71 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ∫∫ Greg Boyle  dG dB
    Do you think the commentators sometimes over-analyze what the artist is doing in a work?
    (21 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Paul Norwood
      Their analysis sometimes brings the question: "did the artist even think that?" Or at times we wonder if the painting isn't better just seen. But in fact, even things the artist perhaps didn't mean to convey through the painting are reflections of the mindset of that time and place in history. Looking beyond the decorative aspects helps us understand how we are a product of our times. In this case, it is worth comparing the druidic reference with Goethe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," where Goethe quotes pseudo-druidic poetry at length. Friedrich and most other Germans were by the time of this painting very influenced by these associations of romanticism and pre-roman cultures. Even though they probably would have seemed outlandish in 1722, these ideas were accepted by 1822 and they still shape our minds today. If we are aware of why we think in a certain way, then we can question our understanding of the world around us. Maybe I am just confusing people more...
      (27 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Wudaifu
    Am I the only one to think that the title of this painting is symbolic and is referring to the man? The prominent tree in the center is NOT alone. There are many other trees in the painting and the one in the background, near the water, on the left is VERY SIMILAR to the central tree. It could have been painted to be a central figure if the artist had a different vantage point, in front of it. On the other hand, the shepherd is standing alone and has probably spent many, many years alone, as depicted. The village in the far distance reminds us how alone he is. He is the lone one, rooted to the land and to this scene.
    (5 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user juliusbyoung3
    I'm wondering about the location. I know Friedrich liked to paint the Baltic, but that he also would travel south to Saxony near the Bohemian (Czech) border. Those mountains look to me like the Riesengebirge/Krkonoše. They're the biggest mountains in the modern Czech Republic and are also big by North German standards. They're also associated with many German and Czech folk-legends, such as the trickster Rübezahl. Considering that y'all already mentioned pre-Christianity, perhaps Friedrich was specifically attracted to these places because of their folklore.

    The German-Bohemian mountains are also the (loose) settings of at least two other Friedrich paintings (Wanderer Over the Sea of Mist and the altarpiece with the Crucifixion). They are also the setting of Weber's extremely popular opera Der Freischuetz (1821 I believe, one year before the painting was finished)--which played a defining role in musical romanticism (influenced Berlioz, Wagner, and even Mahler)--which turns an old legend about a hunter and the devil into a Romantic demonstration of the beautiful and terrifying aspects of nature. I guess the area was pretty en-vogue for German tourists back then.
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user lowerunction
    I can't help but wonder if Beth's voice begins to become hoarse after doing a lot of takes to get the dialogue the way she and Dr. Z want it to be ? Would that be correct ? BTW - they pair well together in presenting different ideas in an additive fashion. Much to be learned from their interaction.
    (0 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. We do sometimes do a second take if we go too far astray. In this case it was a first take, if I remember correctly, but Beth was sick. We were only in Berlin for a couple of days and she wanted to work despite her throat. She is dedicated to Smarthistory and wanted to be sure we covered some key works.
      (6 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user Grace
    Is Beth sick or what . . . . ?
    (1 vote)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Rob
    Shouldn't that tree have a shadow in the water?
    (0 votes)
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Video transcript

(lively music) Steven: When we think of 19th Century landscape painting, we so often think of an artist painting plein air, that is, painting outside, before the landscape, but that wasn't always the case. In the work of Caspar David Friedrich, his paintings were studio paintings. They were inventions, to a very great extentent, and that's certainly the case of The Lone Tree. Beth: Right. He did studies outside, in pencil, and then would compose a painting in his studio. Steven: It makes sense that these would be studio works because Friedrich was using landscape to portray deeper ideas, deeper meanings. Beth: This symbolic landscape includes a lone tree. Steven: And what a tree it is: gnarled, anthropomorphic. Beth: It's brooming towards its bottom, and we can see a shepherd underneath it, gazing at his flock. As it rises up, it seems to struggle, as though its top has been blasted off by lightning or a terrible storm, and it's struggling to just eck out a few leaves towards its top. Steven: It stands like a lone sentinel. It is ancient. Friedrich is creating this contrast between the ephemeral state of that shepherd, that one man's life, what, 70-80 years, as opposed to the thousand-year-old tree that had stood here through wars and storms. Beth: We're certainly meant to look at the top of that tree, the utmost beam part, where Friedrich has parted the mountains and given us an expanse of blue sky. That's the place where Friedrich directs our gaze. Steven: Is it me, or am I seeing a kind of cruciform? Organic, but nevertheless, a reference to the cross. Beth: I think that's very likely there. And we see a church rising above a small town. Steven: But that church is tiny compared to the cathedral that is this tree. Beth: That is, nature. Steven: Friedrich is pointing us to a kind of older spirituality. It's so interesting, when we think about traditional or [classisized] landscapes, say from the Baroque, we might think of the work of Claude Lorrain, who had so carefully constructed a kind of system or formula for the representation of landscape in which trees function as a kind of curtain that is pulled aside to draw us into a deeper landscape, that is, trees frame the image, they frame the deep lanscape. Friedrich has done the reverse here. He's made the tree the main protagonist. The open spaces function as the frame for the tree. It is this move away from classisizing, although I do want to note that the idea of the shepherd and the sheep is very much a classical element that we might find in a Claude. Beth: But it's also a Christian element, a shepherd and his flock. Steven: Finding shelter under that ancient tree. But, even given that cruciform, there's a sense that maybe this tree is even older, that it has a primordial spirituality. Perhaps it had witnessed the Druidic traditions. This tree is the link back to a past that is awe-inspiring in its ability to resist the forces of nature, the forces of man, the march of time. (lively music)