With the rise of industrialism and urbanization in the nineteenth century, Romantic artists often turned to nature with a sense of longing and nostalgia. In his "Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist," Caspar David Friedrich uses specific elements of composition to nostalgically portray the values of reflection and tranquility we can find in nature, and presents art as an alternative "nature." As important as these values were to the Romantics, they are equally or more important for us today.
The idea of nature portrayed in this painting is a distinctly Romantic one; nature in and of itself is not intrinsically peaceful or serene—just imagine a scene that illustrates the function of the food chain. But as the Industrial Revolution continued in the late nineteenth century, things that had once been taken for granted—like the wilderness—were now threatened with destruction. The Romantics were disconcerted by the changes of their time, and artists like Friedrich highlighted the contrast between the new industrial world and the bucolic world they felt they were leaving behind. Previously, nature, or the wilderness, had been a place of foreboding and danger; it was only when people began to leave their rural homes for the city that some started to see nature as Nature, a spiritual place for humanity to rediscover itself, apart from the new life-draining factories and cities. It is not in nature that man finds peace and perspective, but in "Nature"—the setting man has created precisely for that purpose.
Friedrich uses elements of composition to conceptualize this new view of Nature. His idealized landscape creates a sense of awe in the ordinary, emphasized by the presence of the ambiguous man in the foreground, alone with his meditative thoughts. Friedrich's inclusion of this man allows us to more personally relate to the painting than if it were only a landscape; his attitude of reflection reminds us to incorporate that value into our experience with nature and the world. The open frame implies the continuation of the landscape beyond the borders, increasing the sweeping grandeur of the scene and of the thoughts it can inspire. Friedrich's simple color palette of blues, greens and browns emphasizes the simplicity we can find in nature; the colors also provide depth and perspective as they fade in the distance, reminding us of the unforeseeable future and prompting us to meditate upon it, as does the man. Further contributing to the tranquil quality in "Wanderer" is the strong sense of balance, which is due to the central position of the figure, poised between nondescript hills and rocks. Through Friedrich's use of these elements, he achieves Wassily Kandinsky's challenge to communicate the spiritual essence of physical reality; this painting does not transport us to a specific location, but instead impresses upon us the importance of retaining peace and perspective in our lives through the values of reflection and tranquility.
These values were of particular importance during the changes of the nineteenth century, when the shift from rural to industrial was highly visible; however, most of us have never known the pastoral lifestyle of which the Romantics reminisced, and are instead accustomed to a hectic culture and continuous social connectivity. Because of this, it can be difficult to imagine a life with a slower pace and time to reflect. Friedrich reminds us of these values, and can help us create our own Nature wherein to nurture them. The qualities of Nature are not found only in woods and valleys, but also in art itself. As Friedrich's painting communicates the values of reflection and tranquility, it fills the spiritual role of the Romantics' Nature.
It is not so much nature we need, but what we have come to see reflected in Nature, a view well-depicted in Friedrich's "Wanderer." Through his choices of color, composition and subject matter, Friedrich is able to portray the Romantics' spiritual view of Nature while aiding us in creating our own "Nature" through the use of art. By so doing, he reminds viewers, past and present, of the importance of finding time for reflection and tranquility in the midst of a bustling world.