Caspar David Friedrich Project: Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakwood: technical analysis, conservation, restoration

With Monk by the Sea (1808-1810) and The Abbey in the Oakwood (1809-1810) by Caspar David Friedrich, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin is the custodian of perhaps the most famous pair of paintings from the period of German Romanticism. Since Heinrich von Kleist’s first essay, the paintings have inspired many different interpretations, and to this day are one of the central attractions on the Museumsinsel.

Technical aspects and the condition of the paintings

Caspar David Friedrich uses a very fine, primed canvas for both paintings with several layers of ground. The paint was applied in one to two very thin layers. Because of this, the paintings were immediately exceptionally prone to damage, affecting the paintwork as well as mechanical damage and the results of ageing. The condition of the paintings had already deteriorated considerably by 1900. From 1906, they were subjected to intensive restoration work of varying quality. The loss of the original substance of the paintings was considerable. Large, discoloured patches of retouching, overpainting and extremely discoloured layers of varnish detracted from the appearance of the paintings as well as further damage caused by transport and lining.

Conservation and restoration project

In 2013 it finally became possible to realise our long-term goal of restoring and conserving both works through the generous support of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung. The paintings underwent comprehensive analyses and examinations. The technical research on Caspar David Friedrich’s painting techniques in particular delivered fascinating and important information on the materials he used and how they have changed, providing a basis for rethinking the colour compositions. The signatures on both works also led to new and astonishing findings. A detailed conservation and restoration plan was devised from the findings of these analyses. The objectives of these measures were to secure what remains of the original substance, to make the closest possible estimation of the paintings’ original state and to subsequently reconstruct the legibility of the artworks. Upon the completion of this work in January 2016, the restored works were put on display along with the technical and conservational findings as part of the exhibition The Monk Has Returned (22.1. – 24.07.2016) in the Caspar David Friedrich Hall of the Alte Nationalgalerie. In January 2017, a catalogue was published with the same title.

Partners: Bundesanstalt für Materialprüfung Berlin (BAM), Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI); Labor für Archäometrie der Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden (HfBK); Rathgen-Forschungslabor, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (RF); Skulpturensammlung und Museum für spätantike-byzantinische Kunst, Bodemuseum (SBM); Thread Count Automation Project, Don Johnson, Rice Museum, Houston, Texas, USA (TCAP)
Duration: 2013–2016
Funding: Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung
Contact person: Kristina Mösl, Leitung Restaurierung Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin