Why do artists use the Rückenfigur?

The Rückenfigur is a kind of compositional device. It means ‘figure from the back’ in German.

The Rückenfigur is commonly associated with the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich who used it in the 19th Century, most famously in his 1818 painting ‘Wanderer above a Sea of Fog’.

Scores of artists have used this compositional device in their work. In fact, it wasn’t a new idea when Caspar David Friedrich painted his ‘Wanderer’ in 1818. The Italian artist Giotto painted figures with their backs to the viewer as early as the 14th Century.

Since then, the Rückenfigur has featured in the work of Man Ray, Edvard Munch, Dali, Andrew Wyeth and Normal Rockwell, to name a few.

The Rückenfigur encourages us to empathise with the figure or figures in the paintings. We’re invited to share their view. We experience what they are feeling. We almost become the figure itself…

The device also creates mystery. We can’t see the face of the figure, so can only imagine it.

In Johan Christian Dahl’s ‘A Mother and Child by the Sea’ from 1840, this mystery is certainly present. The subject was a deeply personal one for Dahl, whose father was a fisherman. Is this a childhood memory of an artist who regularly watched his father set out to sea? This image strikes a hopeful tone – the boat is returning. We can imagine the child’s expression of excitement and the mother’s sense of relief that her husband has arrived back in one piece.

This sense of mystery is again prevalent in Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’, a painting of the semi-paralysed woman Christina Olson. Here he uses the Rückenfigur to draw us in to her story. We wonder – is she smiling, in pain, or something in between?

Look out for the Rückenfigur device when you’re next able to visit a gallery – it’s everywhere!

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