11 March 2009

Caspar David Friedrich Paints Childhood Horrors

I first read Frankenstein and Dracula in late elementary school, during the early ‘80s. I still remember vividly the the Signet Classics editions of the novels that I owned—in fact, I still have my Frankenstein edition. Both had oil painting illustrations on the covers, and even as a fifth grader I knew that neither work was commissioned for the book. They obviously were works of art from the time period of the books, hanging in a museum somewhere in Europe. I probably glanced at the artist and painting name in the bibliographic information for the book, but I didn’t remember the names years later. But the two images stayed in my head, and I would often see them reproduced on other book covers.

I eventually learned that the two paintings came from the brush of the same artist, German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), considered the greatest Romantic landscape painter in the history of the form. Not only that, but the painting I remembered so strongly from the Signet Frankenstein of my childhood, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, is practically the Official Poster of Romanticism. Go to the Wikipedia page for “Romanticism,” and there it is, right at the top.

The painting has a date of 1818, a year before the publication of Frankenstein, but more than just the proximity of the date makes this the perfect illustration for the novel. I would almost imagine that the novel inspired the painting:This is Victor Frankenstein, among the mountains of Switzerland, contemplating where down in the fog might lurk the monster he created. Dwarfed and insignificant, the creator of this new life contemplates his fate.

The painting from the Dracula edition is Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon. Painted in the early 1830s, this predates Stoker’s novel by around six decades, and the couple wear clothing from the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, the atmospheric match to Stoker’s tale of vampirism and its own Romantic sweep is a powerful one. I can imagine these people are standing near the Borgo Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, watching the Moon and wondering if the bloodsucking undead will crawl from his castle tonight: I have seen both these paintings adorning book covers today. I recently saw Wanderer on the cover of the AD Classic edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Which is a complete mis-match from my perspective, but oh well. I later spotted it on a dictionary of philosophy, reproduced with a weird orange tint. Oh look, here’s another one.

Another of my posts has an amazing “ice landscape” by Herr Friedrich adorning it.