How to Read Paintings: Chalk Cliffs on Rügen by Caspar David Friedrich
This painting, by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.
Chalk Cliffs on Rügen shows three hikers testing their nerve on the edge of a sudden and vertiginous drop. Ahead of them, a set of jagged rocks gleams brightly in the sun.
As in many of Friedrich’s paintings, the figures in the image are seen from behind, shown in the act of gazing. Our vantage point is the same as theirs: positioned to contemplate the expansive view. It’s almost as if we can overlook the entire sea from here, a portal into the sublime through the natural fracture between the rocks.
But look more closely at the people. What’s going on?
At first glance, it may seem as if the man in the centre of the trio has fallen to his knees involuntarily — as if he has dropped something over the edge of the cliff. Or perhaps the woman has lost her hat to a swift breeze: given the fashions of the time, she would certainly have worn one, like the men.
Just as likely is the explanation that the man has crept forward in order to glance excitedly over the rim. In other words, this is a depiction of moderated terror, as he gingerly crawls forward to glimpse exactly how high up they really are.
There is a third possible reading: that the precipitous drop ahead is a metaphor for the steep and unnerving prospect of marriage. The artist, Caspar David Friedrich, had recently wed. Could this painting be a contemplation of the terrific prospect of love — in all senses of the word?
Finding the Precipice
Caspar David Friedrich was a German painter from the Romantic tradition. Many of his works are sombre meditative images that seek to make a connection between inner spirituality and the untamed spectacle of the natural world. A feature of his writings was the belief that God reveals Himself through Nature.