top of page

In 500 Words - The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich

When David Friedrich (1774 - 1840) took up painting, he developed a keen interest in natural subjects. With a frequently symbolic and often anti-classical approach, Friedrich worked to draw out an emotional response to the natural world through painting. It's no surprise then that one of his best-known works, though depicting a shipwreck, places great emphasis on the mighty architecture of icy tectonics battling it out in the Arctic sea.

The Sea of Ice |  Caspar David Friedrich  | 1823-1824 |  Public Domain
The Sea of Ice | Caspar David Friedrich | 1823-1824 | Public Domain

Caspar David Friedrich was born on September 5, 1774 in Greifswald, Germany. While studying, Friedrich invested much of his artistic efforts in landscape and nature painting, pushing for an artistic space that rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment in favour of religion, culture, nature and emotion. Because of this, Friedrich is viewed as a major proponent of Romanticism, an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the 18th century.

Friedrich intended to cultivate imagery that articulated the religious and spiritual core of nature. The Sea of Ice was first exhibited at the Prague Academy exhibition in 1824 with the title An Idealized Scene of an Arctic Sea, with a Wrecked Ship on the masses of ice. The work was commissioned by Johann Gottlob von Quandt who wanted two paintings to symbolize the south and the north of the globe. Johann Martin von Rohden received the commission to paint Southern Nature in her Abundant and Majestic Splendor, while the commission for Northern Nature in the whole of her Terrifying Beauty was assigned to Friedrich. Having never been to the Arctic, Friedrich studied icebergs on the Elbe and likely referred to reports and articles about the subject, building an image of what the artist perceived the landscape to look like.

The foreground of the painting exhibits small stepped icebergs which frame a jagged cathedral of ice crushed together to form towering lance-like structures. To the left, smaller ice panels creep over the stern of an almost entirely submerged shipwreck. The message here is sonorous: natural forces are superior to human construction. However, the painting may draw from a more personal experience too. As a child, Friedrich's brother fell through the ice on a body of water and perished, the experience likely influencing the relentless violence of Friedrich's rendering. In addition, there is a theory that Friedrich intended the painting as a commentary on Germany, the stagnant ship engulfed in a barren landscape with no hope of salvation.

Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) Public Domain
The Raft of the Medusa | Théodore Géricault's | 1818–19 | Public Domain

Friedrich may have drawn inspiration from Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), which exhibits a similar compositional layout to The Sea of Ice with an equally bleak undertone. Interestingly, there is an ongoing debate about the sublime quality of the painting. While the serried edges of ice are tantalizingly dangerous, they also harbour an entrancing subliminal crystalline glow - although, as some may argue, the painting itself resists guiding the viewer into the scene, a defining factor of the sublime.




IRIS28 receives an affiliate fee from certain online retailers (like Amazon) when readers click over to their website via the links provided on our site. This policy helps support the operation of our blog and allows us to keep access to our content free to the public. In any case, we always remain objective, impartial and unbiased in circumstances where affiliate links are included.


Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.

bottom of page