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on a sailing ship

The Amsterdam Hermitage currently has a small exhibition of nine paintings and a number of drawings by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Among his wild and Gothic landscapes with solitary figures contemplatively lost in their majestic natural surroundings, 'On a Sailing Ship' stands out as a particularly hopeful, man-made vision.

On a Sailing Ship - Caspar David Friedrich

In many of his works, Friedrich used foreground figures with their back to the spectator, taking in the splendor of vast landscapes. Gazing along with them, the viewer is drawn into the image, and his gaze anchored in the background. To put it in film terms: Friedrich's paintings are like over-the-shoulder shots, aligning the viewer's gaze with that of the characters shown. The effect is a shared sense of awe, of meditation on nature and divinity.

'On a Sailing Ship' is one of the most dramatic examples of this motif. The foreground dominates the composition, but the gaze is still drawn, along with the couple's, to the vista of the city skyline in the background. It is a powerful way of conveying the first glimpse of a new destination and the surge of expectancy it creates. The city on the horizon can't but be a mythical destination.

Update: See also this overview of Friedrich's over-the-shoulder shots.

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