Topic: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Caspar David Friedrich (2008) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper considers Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas on the state and the individual in relation to two paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. It was written by Debbie McCauley on 6 November 2008 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

This essay seeks to introduce the philosopher Rousseau and the concept of romanticism. It will discuss the landscape artist Friedrich and analyse two of his paintings. Each painting will be discussed in relation to Rousseau’s views as to who holds the most importance - the state or the individual. 


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Rousseau was a French philosopher, one of the most noteworthy intellectuals of the period of Enlightenment. He was born in Geneva; his mother, Suzanne Bernard, died in childbirth and he was raised by his father Isaac who was a watchmaker. While Isaac imparted a love of nature and books to his son, he also passed on a sense of inadequacy and guilt. Rousseau’s many talents included political philosopher, composer, tutor, music theorist, playwright, novelist, botanist, educationalist and psychologist. His works include:

  • Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men (1754)
  • Discourse on Political Economy (1755)
  • Emile (1762)
  • The Social Contract (1762)
  • Confessions (1770)
  • Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1777)

‘Emile’ and ‘The Social Contract’, his most well-known works, offended authorities so deeply that both were publicly burned by the public executioner who also ordered Rousseau’s arrest, sending him into enforced exile for several years. He associated with fellow eighteenth century philosophers Diderot and Voltaire but because of his fervent religious beliefs became estranged from them and their ‘Parisian’ ways in the mid 1750’s. This is illustrated by his opening sentence in Emile (2003): ‘Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man’ (p. 1).

Several authors suggest that Rousseau was the ultimate conspiracy theorist and his character certainly seems to have displayed several disagreeable qualities. Qualities clearly illustrated by several authors who state that he gave away each of his five children, shortly after each birth, to an orphanage where it is doubtful they could have survived for long. He is accused of hypochondria, having narcissistic qualities, being infantile, self pitying, vain, miserly, egotistical, neurotic, conceited, quarrelsome and dismissive of women’s role within society. There is also suggestion of dementia. Despite these flaws in his personality, he was still a highly intelligent and brilliant philosopher, producing some noteworthy texts and ideas. Even if one does not agree with all of his doctrines, one can still see some merit in his ideas that were considered radical at the time of their inception. In fact, the ideas expressed in ‘The Social Contract’ are said to have inspired the French Revolution (c.1789-c.1799) as well as revolutionaries Toussaint L’Ouverture and Che Guevara.  

Romanticism describes a passionate era between Classicism and Impressionism that lasted from around 1790 to 1840. This movement seemed to be a reaction against the Enlightenment and Classical rationality. To be a Romantic was to have a heightened sensitivity to and be fascinated by the mystical power, freedom and rawness of nature surrounding oneself. Emotion could take over and be freely expressed; suffering and adversity were almost expected and the gaining of experience was said to be more beneficial than learning. Several authors credit Rousseau with being the ‘Father’ of Romanticism. This was partly due to his study of botany, published as ‘Reveries of a Solitary Walker’ in 1777 which seemed to ignite the outburst of Romanic naturalism that followed.

Romantic painters generally expressed themselves in a highly imaginative manner. They conveyed the emotional intensity of the vastness and power of nature through the visionary quality of their art. Their subjects, often solitary travelers, were habitually far away and indistinct, in harmony with and held captive by their natural surroundings. Romantic painters included William Blake, John Constable, Eugene Delacroix, Caspar Friedrich, Henry Fuseli, Theodore Gericault, Philipp Otto Runge and Joseph Turner. Friedrich’s paintings are endorsed by different authors as the ultimate visual representation of the Romantic’s ideals.


Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

Friedrich was one of Germany’s leading Romantic painters. He was the sixth child of ten and suffered losses early in his life. His mother died in 1781, his sister Elisabeth in 1782, his brother, Johann, drowned in front of him when he was twelve years old and another sister, Maria, died in 1791. Some writers surmise that these family tragedies later affected his paintings, giving them a morbidity or melancholic air, often coupled with religious themes directly relating to the beauty of nature. His imagined landscapes often portrayed elements such as expansive skies, forests, ruins, mountains shrouded in fog and mist along with solitary figures.

Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c1818) is an oil-on-canvas painting measuring 98.4cm x 74.8cm. The composition is dominated by the back view of a solitary figure. This is commonly thought to be national hero Friedrich Gotthard von Brincken, a colonel in the Saxon infantry who fought on the side of Prussia during the Wars of Liberation. He is standing on a dark, symmetrical, rocky pyramid, apparently looking out over the vast, mountainous peaks of Saxon, Switzerland. In the foreground he is situated above the vista, possibly contemplating the awesome power and beauty of nature as well as his own struggle and sense of achievement in reaching the summit. The range of mountains in the background and the forested valley in front are shrouded in a sea of grey and white fog. These clouds have opened to reveal to the viewer a fraction of the immense panorama that is tantalisingly hidden below. All the elements in the painting seem to converge on the forest green coated waist of the ‘wanderer’ which becomes the vanishing point. In the direction of this focal position, banks of fog radiate horizontally and diagonally inward. There is a massing of clouds and an overwhelming expanse of sky above the figure, adding to the vastness of the scene of this truly beautiful painting. 

Winter Landscape with Church was painted by Friedrich in 1811. It is oil on canvas, much smaller than Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, measuring 32.5cm x 45cm. Depicted is a small and almost insignificant figure in the foreground. The wintery landscape is coldly barren with blades of grass poking up through the snow. The figure is positioned on the snowy ground leaning back against a boulder. This solitary individual has apparently abandoned his crutches and his hands are clasped in prayer. He gazes upwards at a crucifix that is positioned among a cluster of fir trees which seem to echo the spires of a Gothic cathedral situated in the background. This rises up against the murky winter sky and looks almost otherworldly due to its base being shrouded in mist. It is unclear from the composition of the picture if the traveller will retrieve his crutches (if in fact he still needs them after his prayers) and resume his journey on to the cathedral or if the abandoning of his crutches signifies that he has found what he is looking for in nature.


Rousseau’s Philosophy

There are some inconsistencies between Rousseau’s thoughts on the state of man and the importance of the individual between the ‘Discourse on Inequality’ (which extolled the virtues of the individual) and ‘The Social Contract’ (where he introduces the concept of the ‘General Will’). This is demonstrated by the differences in Friedrich’s paintings. Part of the opening quote from ‘The Social Contract’ is: ‘He is everywhere in chains’ which means entirely the opposite to that which readers may think. The ‘chains’ are societal obligations where individuals are dependent on other individuals, and apparently one can live happily within these ‘chains’ of society without compromising one’s freedom by adherence to the common good or ‘General Will’. 

This concept is central to Rousseau’s political philosophy, whereby individuals take part in a ‘social contract’ with other individuals and therefore, in theory, create a perfect society. In principle it embodies the ideal that while the individual wills or desires many things, it is, more importantly, the community good which leads the individual to vote for this reason, even though it may not be in the individual’s best interests. By doing this the individual is obeying oneself and is therefore a free human being while participating in a just and proper society run by the people. Therefore ‘living in chains’ or the chains of a society could be a positive state of being. 

But can this utopia ever be fully realised and is there really always only one course of action that is in the general good? In some cases Rousseau’s philosophy raises more questions than it answers. If, according to the ‘General Will’, there is only ever one correct decision, how can this possibly be arrived at? What about differences of opinion, values, ideals, environmental concerns, minority viewpoints, morals, ethnic differences, religious beliefs etc? In the opinion of this essay, there is sometimes no clear and logical action to be taken and Rousseau’s theories could be used to validate totalitarianism. This essay does believe that a ‘General Will’ is still a useful concept, if restrictive in its consideration of minority’s views and open debate on issues. While it is generally accepted that Rousseau’s theory of the ‘General Will’ would not work in a democratic society his concept of the ‘sovereignty of the people’ helps to form the basis for democracy.

Friedrich’s Winter Landscape with Church, (with the figure who has given himself up to another entity by casting his crutches aside) seems to embody Rousseau’s ideal of the ‘General Will’ where individuals give themselves up to a ‘Social Contract’ and put their own selfish needs, desires and freedom aside. Under this contract the individual forgoes their own personal freedom in order to obey the ‘General Will’. In this painting the crutches would seem to represent this personal freedom while the crucifix symbolises the state. Perhaps the subject of this painting has already been socially engineered into obedience of the ‘General Will’ as part of Rousseau’s suggestion for educating children that the state holds most importance. This repressive political system of Rousseau’s discourages any form of debate and heaven help you if you hold a minority view as you can then be ‘forced to be free’ (Rousseau, 1998, p. 18). In the opinion of this essay this changes the concept of freedom entirely and can be easily twisted and used as justification for unsavoury activities.     

Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog seems entirely contradictory to the essence of Rousseau’s philosophy that the individual must totally submit themselves and their personal beliefs to the domination of the state or the ‘General Will’. This ‘wanderer’ is not bound to the ‘Social Contract,’ he is at the top of the world answerable to no-one aside from himself. He seems confident and secure and well able to debate issues with vigour. This painting seems to embody the freedom of the individual and the choices that he can make entirely in his own self interest. It could, however, be debated (against Rousseau’s philosophy unfortunately) that the view the ‘wanderer’ is observing represents the state and the person’s feeling that they are part of the whole, however this essay believes that the view is more likely to represent personal freedom.

This essay has examined Rousseau and his philosophy and Friedrich and two of his paintings. It has investigated whether these particular artworks support or oppose Rousseau’s views of the importance of the state above the individual. In doing so it has found that one painting seems to illustrate the idea of the ‘General Will’ and one seems to discredit it entirely. This essay acknowledges the importance of Friedrich’s paintings to Romanticism and the beauty and emotion contained within his art. Whether one finds Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ theory workable or not in practice one must still acknowledge the contribution his works have made to both the history of philosophy and how they relate to democracy where the people are sovereign.



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