Twenty-five years ago, only a handful of Americans were aware of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) or Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810). And even fewer had heard of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Carl Gustav Carus, or Karl Friedrich Lessing. Today, thanks to several international exhibitions, a series of books devoted to the German Romantic movement and its leaders, and a reawakening of interest in German art in general, these names have become reasonably familiar to an increasing number of American art lovers.
They will become even better known if the Pierpont Morgan Library here has its way, for it has assembled an unprecedented loan exhibition of 125 drawings and watercolors by these and other leading artists of the Romantic era.
``The Romantic Spirit: German Drawings, 1780-1850, from the German Democratic Republic'' draws exclusively on holdings of the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and the Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstaamlungen, Dresden. All of the works are important art-historical, as well as artistic, documents, and none have ever been lent to an American institution before.
The exhibition focuses on what is undoubtedly the most creative period of German culture, the time of G"oethe, Schiller, Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms. It was then that the ideals of Romantic art were first formulated.
In painting, they were best summarized by Caspar David Friedrich, the finest of the German Romantic artists, when he stated, ``A painter should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself.''
Art, in other words, should reflect personal and subjective qualities as well as perceptual and traditional ones. And if, in the process, it placed a greater emphasis on feeling than on form, on individual idiosyncrasies than on classical formulae, well and good. The French Revolution, after all, had shattered the calm and certainty of the Age of Reason, making it all the more appropriate that German Romanticism explore certain subtle and mysterious aspects of human experience beyond the comprehension and control of rational thought.
With that, nature, especially mountains and forests, became a source of mystery and enchantment for at least three generations of German painters; imagination was given free rein in matters of theme; and history, myth, and folklore became the favorite subjects for large numbers of artists.
Interestingly, the German Romantic movement had no common artistic style. Everyone drew and painted pretty much as he pleased - although precision and technical control were universally admired.
Some painters worked in a Neo-Classical style; others drew their inspiration from medieval and early Italian models, which they then sweetened and refined; and others still preferred to work more loosely and impressionistically.
A few, however, confronted their subjects in a straightforwardly ``realistic'' manner that was as clear-eyed in its perceptions as it was respectful in its attitude. Here, Friedrich reigned supreme, a master not only of pure landscape, but of allegorical, religious, and figure painting as well.
He is represented in this exhibition by a number of landscape studies as well as by his famous ``Self-Portrait'' of 1810, a black chalk drawing that has become almost as well known in recent years as the self-portraits of Rembrandt and C'ezanne. It's smaller and more delicate than I had expected, but it holds its own among several larger and more aggressive works in a way only exceptional drawings can.
The same is true of ``A Bare Oak,'' an utterly simple pencil study whose only distinguishing features are the sensitivity with which it was drawn and the extraordinary fashion in which it permits us to share something of what Friedrich must have felt in front of a truncated and gnarled old tree back in 1806.
Not everything, however, is going to appeal to late 20th-century tastes. This is especially true of the drawings of Franz Pforr and Johann Overbeck, whose updated and stylized medievalism will strike many as self-conscious and sentimental - and of the careful renderings of Neo-Classicists Asmus Carstens and Joseph Anton Koch.
On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine anyone not responding favorably to most of the other works on view - provided, of course, the viewer understands that almost everything in this exhibition is - at least by 20th-century standards - ``tightly'' realistic and quietly understated, and lacking in the kind of surface excitement for which 20th-century German art is so well known.
Three other artists should be mentioned: Karl Blechen, for his expansive, full-bodied watercolors and his extraordinary pen-and-wash drawing of a forest interior; Rudolf Alt, for his architectural studies; and Adolf Menzel, for his brilliant and startlingly ``modern'' approach to drawing.
All three of these little-known (at least to American audiences) artists are exceptional creative figures, who deserve full-scale American exhibitions of their own. One can only hope that this excellent and important show will induce someone to follow through.
At the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through Jan. 29.