Landscape with Castle: the paintings of Carl Friedrich Lessing, 1

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Landscape in the Eifel Mountains (1834), oil on canvas, 110 x 158 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

No single art exists in isolation from others, and literature often has an overarching influence over other arts, including painting. Not only do written works supply narrative for paintings, but literary movements fuel those of the visual arts.

This isn’t always obvious, as our cultural history may later distort the view of the importance of those movements in different arts: a good example of this is Naturalism, which occupies a prominent place in nineteenth century literary history, but has become almost forgotten in its contemporary painting, displaced by Impressionism, which didn’t have any strong association in literature.

In the late eighteenth century, the development of Gothic fiction as an extreme form of romanticism had growing impact on literature throughout Europe and North America. This flourished further in the nineteenth century, with the great success of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in the prose of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Byron.

Several of the finest painters who adopted Gothic Romantic themes came from Germany: Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is perhaps now the best-known, and among his successors was the highly influential Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), who was a prominent member of the Düsseldorf School (you’ll also see his first name spelled as Karl). That was a direct influence on the Hudson River School in the USA, and painters throughout Europe for much of the nineteenth century.

Lessing was born in what is now Wrocław in Poland, into an artistic upper-middle class family. At the age of only fourteen, he started as an architectural student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin. After a year, though, he changed course to study painting at the Academy of Art in the city, where he was taught by the landscape painter Samuel Rösel.

In 1826, Lessing moved to the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts with his friend Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, who was then appointed its Director. It was Schadow who founded the Düsseldorf ‘School’ of Painting, with the support of students including Lessing, and who remained its head until it was displaced by Naturalism in 1859.

Lessing exhibited successfully from 1825 onwards.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Knight’s Castle (1828), oil on canvas, 138 x 194 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lessing’s early paintings often featured castles with vertiginous walls set in rugged terrain, of which this Knight’s Castle from 1828 is a good example. These share the remote and sombre atmosphere of many of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, but with a distinctly mediaeval flavour. Figures are small and generally few in number.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Monastery Courtyard in Snow (c 1828-29), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Monastery Courtyard in Snow (c 1828-29) is another motif influenced by Friedrich. In the cloisters, the monks are seen only as anonymous black silhouettes, which adds to the sinister effect.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Royal Couple Mourning for their Dead Daughter (1830), oil on canvas, 215 x 193 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

This historical fantasy of a Royal Couple Mourning for their Dead Daughter (1830) received great praise at the time (some sources claim in 1828 rather than 1830). The king’s headgear suggests an ‘oriental’ location, and their dress appears mediaeval. The statue of the Virgin Mary at the right edge makes it clear, though, that they are Christian and not ‘Saracen’.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Landscape with Crows (c 1830), oil on canvas, 24.1 x 35.5 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Landscape with Crows from about 1830 is quite a small and painterly plein air sketch, with visible brushstrokes in the vegetation, and gestural construction of the trees.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), The Robber and His Child (1832), oil on canvas, 42.2 × 48.6 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

The threat of ‘banditti’ in wild country was first popularised in painting by Salvator Rosa, but flourished in the early nineteenth century in the works of many who travelled in wild country. Lessing’s painting of The Robber and His Child from 1832 adds an interesting twist in considering the social side of the mountain bandit. This man and his barefooted son appear in quite desperate circumstances on a narrow track high above the safety of the prosperous plain below.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Landscape in the Eifel Mountains (1834), oil on canvas, 110 x 158 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Lessing also painted ‘pure’ landscapes in regions which might appear suited to Gothic Romantic stories. His Landscape in the Eifel Mountains from 1834 is one his finest, and shows a small village in this rolling and craggy countryside in the east of Germany, near to Düsseldorf, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Landscape in the Eifel Mountains (detail) (1834), oil on canvas, 110 x 158 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

There are just three discernible figures: a young man who is setting off on horseback, and two women standing talking on the track leading out of the village.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Romantic Landscape with Monastery (1834), oil on canvas, 49.5 x 66.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Romantic Landscape with Monastery from 1834 returns to the theme of remote communities in rugged country, as two of the inhabitants of this monastery walk down the small track. One is carrying a lantern, a feature of some of Friedrich’s paintings.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), The Return of the Crusader (1835), oil on canvas, 66 × 64 cm, LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum für Archäologie, Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte, Bonn, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The crusades presented Lessing with an ideal combination of mediaeval history, romance, and chivalry. In The Return of the Crusader from 1835, he shows a lone knight in full armour dozing as his horse plods its way up a path from the coast. Although his armour is still shiny, a tattered battle pennant hangs limply from his lance.

This painting is based on a Romantic poem by the German writer Karl Leberecht Immermann (1796-1840), who at that time was living in Düsseldorf, and may well have been a friend of Lessing’s.

Carl Friedrich Lessing (1808–1880), Crusader on Watch in the Mountains (1836), oil on canvas, 19.6 x 27.1 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, he continued the theme of crusading with Crusader on Watch in the Mountains (1836), shown here as a monochrome image of what was, I believe, a full-colour painting, probably an oil study for a more finished work. A similarly bearded knight walks with his horse on an exposed mountain ridge. He is now wrapped in a long cloak, and embracing his lance.


Wikipedia (in German).