Wanderers, wayfarers, pilgrims have all walked through the countryside, over mountain passes, and moved as they wish. Some have sought wisdom or spiritual enrichment, others just a bite to eat and somewhere sheltered to sleep. They’ve crossed continents alone, and many simply vanished when attacked by wild animals or overwhelmed by bad weather.
This long weekend, I’m going to look at these wanderers in paintings, and consider why they became popular in nineteenth century landscapes.
The lone itinerant man was a significant theme for Hieronymus Bosch, who featured him in at least two of his triptychs: sadly the earlier of them has been broken up, but its exterior is one of the finest depictions of a wanderer.
This is a circular tondo from the period 1500-10 showing the figure of a travelling man in the foreground, against a countryside background with a single tumbledown building.
The man is thin and gaunt, and looks slightly anxiously towards the lower left of the panel. He wears ad hoc clothing for walking: a long-tailed jacket and trousers, with a soft cloth chaperon hat. His clothes are tatty, in need of repair, and a dull grey-brown. The right knee of the trousers has a large hole, and the left lower leg is pulled up above a dirty bandage tied around a wound in that leg. His footwear is odd, with a short black boot on the right foot, and a low, flat black ‘mule’ on the left.
In his left hand, he carries a brimmed hat, which has a bobbin stuck into it, and in his right hand a walking stick, which he holds upside down, its club-like handle close to the ground by his right foot. He has a knife in a sheath secured to his belt, and carries on his back a large wickerwork pack, which is secured across his chest. Attached to the outside of the pack is a ladle, and an animal skin.
Behind him, on the left of the painting, is a dog cowed and possibly growling towards him. Behind that is a sow and half a dozen piglets feeding at a small trough. There are also a couple of chickens. Behind the animals is a dilapidated building, which bears the sign of a white swan outside. In the doorway, a man is conducting negotiations with a woman. Another woman looks out from a broken window. At the left there is a bird in a cage, and at the right side of the building a man is urinating by a small fence.
To the right of the painting is a small field gate and a tree, behind which is a single magpie on the ground, and a cow. In the distance there is rolling open countryside with scattered trees and a few buildings.
The later of Bosch’s paintings is another exterior, this time of his well-preserved triptych The Haywain, probably painted after 1510 in the final few years of the artist’s life.
This shows an older man walking from left to right along a narrow path, which passes through meadows. Unusually for Bosch it isn’t painted in grisaille, but in full colour.
The man has white hair and a close-cropped full beard, and looks to the left of the panels. He wears a black chaperon-style hat, a long brown tunic, and matching brown trousers. His tunic is loosened at the neck and upper chest to reveal a black waistcoat and white underclothing. The left knee of his trousers is split to reveal most of that kneecap. He wears a pair of short black boots. A sheathed knife is on his belt, and he holds a walking stick, with its club-like end on the ground, in front of a collared dog which is snarling at him.
On his back is a large wickerwork pack, a large wooden spoon on its side, which is fastened around his arms and chest with a leather strap.
Just in front of him, the path crosses a small stream by a stone bridge with a primitive handrail. There are birds in the water: a grey heron (or possibly a little egret), and a moorhen. In the lower left corner are long bones and a skull from a dead animal such as a horse.
Behind him, on the left, three robbers are tying another traveller to a tree, having stolen his outer clothing and his pack. They are armed with a crossbow and pikes, which rest on the ground by them. On the right, in the distance, a man and a woman are dancing amid their flock of sheep, to the music provided by a bagpiper, who is sat underneath another tree, which has a large box fixed to its trunk. The background shows rolling pasture and woods, rising to a hill on which a large gallows is being erected. A church tower rises from a town in the far distance.
This image of a wanderer making his way through the dangers of the countryside opens to reveal the brilliant colours and details of the Fall of Man, a rustic scene centred on a large wagon of hay, and the torments of Hell.
Although the great landscape painters of the Dutch Golden Age often included staffage in their works, the wanderer doesn’t return until the Romantic mountainous landscapes of the Alps started to become popular in the late eighteenth century.
Caspar Wolf used various forms of staffage in his Alpine views, and in 1774, in this view of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier with Lütschine and the Mettenberg placed three tiny figures at the foot of the towering ice to give scale. In the right foreground are two figures, one with his back to the viewer as a Rückenfigur, who are different.
This was followed by two painters, Caspar David Friedrich and his pupil Carl Gustav Carus, who established the wanderer as a device in landscape paintings.
Friedrich’s famous Wanderer above the Sea of Mists from 1818 uses extensive mist and cloud both to detach its scenery from ground level, and to maintain a pervasive air of mystery. A bareheaded, blond man stands as a Rückenfigur astride a rocky outcrop in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, a walking stick in his right hand. He looks out over a blanket of lower cloud, pierced by occasional rock pinnacles and peaks. In the distance, more gradual slopes suggest higher mountains to the sides, and vaguer forms of rounded peaks, and a massive rocky butte, fade into mist.
Carus’ Wanderer on the Mountaintop, Pilgrim’s Rest was painted in the same year, but I don’t know which of the two artists preceded the other. This wanderer raises his stick like a fishing rod, and sits rather than stands.
Friedrich’s marriage brought Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818), which is a variant of the theme. Here are dazzling white pinnacles of chalk, a calm sea with sailing vessels, shown in full daylight, the whole framed by trees in full leaf to enhance depth.
The figures might represent his bride (clad in red, symbolising love) and himself, both engaged in studying the clifftop from its edge, but there is a third person: a Rückenfigur wearing a tricorn hat (a recurrent theme in his work), arms folded, staring out to sea as if the couple were not there at all. It has been suggested that this third figure is Friedrich the artist.
As Friedrich explored variations, Carus stuck to his faceless wanderer. In Pilgrim in a Rocky Valley from about 1820, the man with a hat and walking stick is standing in front of a narrow gorge, which promises to make his passage very difficult.
In about 1822, Carus painted one of his finest works, this View of Dresden at Sunset. The famous spires and towers of the city of Dresden are seen against the rich, warm light of dusk. Sat admiring the sight are two Rückenfiguren, one wearing a distinctive top hat.
In his Woman on the Balcony (1824), Carus replaces his faceless male wanderer with a young woman dressed in black, facing away from the viewer. She is here on the terrace of a castellated mansion high above rolling wooded countryside, probably somewhere in central Germany.
Friedrich and Carus were soon to hand the wanderer over to its greatest exponent, the Norwegian artist Thomas Fearnley.