Exhibition: Oak in the Snow - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The guest work


2012-04-17 • 2012-07-08

Oak in the Snow

Room 16

Caspar David Friedrich began his art training in his hometown of Greifswald, then part of Sweden, with the university teacher of drawing Johann Gottfried Quistorp . In 1794, he continued his studies at the Academy of the Fine Arts of Copenhagen. In 1798 he moved to Dresden, where he was to remain, except for the occasional journey to northern Germany and to Bohemia. In 1810 he was admitted as a member of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and from 1824 taught at the Dresden Academy.

This small painting shows a clearly delimited fragment of a landscape. In a snow-covered meadow stands a gnarly oak, its lower branches spreading out to the edges of the image. In the background is the edge of a wood, and in the foreground a small pool on the edge of which lie two dead boughs. The grey of the sky is clearly wintry; only in the upper part of the painting are fragments of blue sky to be seen.

Oak in the Snow was based on some highly detailed studies of nature Friedrich produced in the German city of New Brandenburg around 1806 and on 2 June 1809, held today, respectively, in the Nasjonalgalleriet of Oslo (inv. no. B16069; Bernhard, p. 427) and in the Kupferstichkabinett at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (inv. no. Friedrich 28; Bernhard, p. 492). However, the refined technique and the wintry theme led Börsch-Supan to suggest that the painting cannot be earlier than 1827. The protracted length of time between the execution of the preliminary drawings and the conclusion of the work gives a clear idea of how Friedrich went about his work: He considered the sketches he did on his travels, drawings remarkably faithful to nature, to be a kind of repertoire of forms that he could subsequently select and transfer to the canvas depending on the requirements of his landscapes.

The theme of the oak is a recurring one in Friedrich's work, usually rendered in similar paintings like the one of the same title executed in 1829 and now in the Berlin Nationalgalerie (inv. no. A II 338). For Börsch-Supan, who has successfully "decoded" the artist's symbolic idiom, the oak is an allegory of the pagan conception of life. The unmistakable expressiveness to be found in Oak in the Snow prompted Börsch-Supan to propose interpreting the painting as being in direct relation with man. In the fallen branches by the pool, Friedrich might have wished to symbolise the fact that human life and its powers are fleeting. The sky, the snow that is beginning to melt and the pool itself represent "Christianity, which historically follows paganism" (Börsch-Supan 1973, p. 414). Although this perhaps slightly simplistic reasoning does not wholly explain the artist's intentions, it undoubtedly gets to the heart of the conception of his painting. This work makes clear how this Protestant artist's paintings need to be looked at and understood. This is so because for Friedrich the genuine, and genuinely superior, aim of his art is the representation of man in relation to God, considered the goal and promise of our weary transit through life on earth.

Text: Götz Czymmek
Head Curator, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne

Caspar David Friedrich (Greifswald, 1774–Dresde, 1840)
Oak in the Snow
Oil on canvas. 44 x 34.5 cm
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne