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February 03, 2021

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Friedrich Chasseur.jpg

The Chasseur in the Forest
Caspar David Friedrich

This work is probably the most overt expression of German patriotism and anti-French sentiment Casper David Friedrich ever painted during the Napoleonic Wars. Other works during this era touched on his personal feelings, but didn’t really comment directly on current events or politics. He was constantly disappointed by the northern European leaders as they capitulated to Napoleon one-by-one. His work during this era shows disillusionment and depression. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 however, the mood of his work suddenly changes.

This work is Friedrich gloating. The landscape is dominated by a thick wall of tall fir trees. At the bottom center of the work is a small, snow-covered clearing where a lone soldier stands. His back is to the viewer and he stares at the imposing, black forest through which he must pass. A chasseur was an elite member of the French cavalry. They were the lightning troops, who traveled light and fast wherever needed in battle. In this painting, he is missing his horse and is alone in unknown territory. He is tiny against the rest of the landscape and is surrounded by the imposing wall of trees. We cannot see very far into the forest before it becomes total blackness.

In the extreme center foreground are tree stumps. They are not from trees that have died and fallen over, but are clean cuts. These trees were killed, but the stumps are behind the chasseur—in the past. Already new growth is replacing them. A crow sits on one of the stumps. When this painting was unveiled for the first time, a newspaper review thought the crow was singing a death song for the French. The snow is a sickly, brownish-yellow color and is reminiscent of his earlier work Monk by the Sea, which may be Friedrich at his most despondent during this era. This is not a fresh coat of beautiful, pure, white snow. This is old, ugly, icy snow that has been around too long and has been polluted by the elements. The pessimistic inference from the earlier piece seems to be transferred now to this one, but instead of it being apple to Germany, this time it’s on France.

The evergreen forest had powerful connotations in German culture. It might reference Germany’s Black Forest, but some scholars think its meaning may go back further to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, when Germanic tribes under Arminius destroyed three Roman legions in 9 AD. During the Napoleonic Wars, Arminius was revived as a national hero and Friedrich would reference him several times. Napoleon styled France as the New Rome and much of his propaganda and imagery borrowed heavily from that earlier Empire. Friedrich, therefore, could be using Roman history against this “New Rome” by referencing one of its greatest defeats.

The small area of sky is covered with thick clouds, but some light is reflected off the clouds. The sun is low in the sky and the viewer is left to figure out for himself if it is sunrise or sunset. I think the time of day also depends of which direction the chasseur is facing. I think the chasseur is facing west because he is trying to get home. If so, then it is a sunset—a very popular symbol of dying, eras ending, or time passing by. To Friedrich, the sun is finally setting on the French Empire.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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