As the average life span for those living today continues to rise, now well past seventy for both sexes, we tend not to think so much about life and death--our own mortality. I suppose the closer one approaches the proverbial four score such thoughts may become more common, but even at that, even as artists, we tend not to let such thoughts dominate our thinking or creep into our artwork. Two hundred years ago, when every minor battle with ill health held out the possibility of an early death, regardless of one's age, such thoughts were much more prevalent. When people felt they had very little control of their health and thus of their lives, they tended to be much more philosophical about life and their place in the grand scheme of things. Caspar David Friedrich was a German Romantic landscape painter during the early 1800s, and it would seem, judging from his work, he thought about little else.
Friedrich was born in 1774, the son of a candlemaker. Though born in Pomerania on the Baltic, he was raised in Dresden, Germany, where he had a strict, Protestant upbringing, marred early in his life by an incident in which he fell through some ice. In rescuing him, his older brother drowned. His brother's death was to profoundly effect him for the rest of his life. He was a deeply sad and melancholy individual. He was forty years old before he married, and then to a girl 22 years his junior. She bore him three children. A product of the illustrious Copenhagen Academy, Friedrich spent his entire life in Germany, where his exquisitely detailed, modest-sized landscapes each come loaded with solemn symbolism relating to his deep awareness of his own mortality.
The Stages of Life, painted in 1835, just five years before his death, is one such work. Though all of his work was done from his imagination, they were loosely based upon sketches of actual locations. This painting is set on a beach recognisable as the harbour of Greifswald where he was born. Five ships are depicted at various distances representing the passing of life. The mast of the central ship, painted head on, forms a crucifix symbolising Friedrich's deep religious faith. On the shore is an old man in the foreground, his back to us, representing old age (Friedrich), while a young man in a top hat, (his nephew) represents maturity. Beyond them, playing on the beach are a young girl (his eldest daughter) representing youth, and two children playing with a Swedish flag, (his two younger children), representing childhood. The painting with its luminous, golden sky and lavender clouds is remarkably tranquil. Yet there is a feeling of sadness as one watches the ships, symbolising life, sailing away into the sunset. How different we are today. How likely we are to dismiss such musings as something we'd just as soon not think about.