The Morning
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Arty Fact

More about The Morning

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 In The Morning, Philipp Otto Runge tried to capture the precise way the light at sunrise made him feel... without actually painting a sunrise.

The painting is just one in what Runge initially conceived of as a series of four monumental oil paintings called his Tageszeiten, representing four key times of day which in his worldview corresponded with the four seasons and four stages of life: birth, maturity, decline, and death. The Morning is just a tiny fragment of what he thought of as a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” a sort of holy grail of artistic expression that many German Romantic artists and philosophers loved to write lofty theories about, although none until Runge would be brave enough to try and put those theories into practice. 

And the paintings weren’t even the half of it. He wanted to build a whole Gothic chapel designed specifically to house them, and for the paintings to be viewed to the accompaniment of music and poetry readings by his friend, the author Ludwig Tieck. For Runge, it wasn’t just the paintings, but the whole experience of viewing them in this special building that would be the completed artwork. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis before he was able to carry out his grand plans, at the age of 33. During the eight years leading up to his death, Runge obsessively drafted and redrafted preparation drawings for his Tageszeiten, but The Morning is the only one that he ever converted into color. In fact, the version you see here isn’t even the final draft! He was so unhappy with how the full-sized version turned out that he ordered it to be destroyed after his death. See what being too much of a perfectionist gets you? Nothing but an incomplete gesamtkunstwerk and a whole lot of frustration.

For Runge, The Morning corresponded with the season of spring and the life stage of birth, which might help to clear up, at least in part, why there are so many babies in it. The baby lying at the painting’s center exuding its own aura of golden light is, as you might imagine, particularly significant; although not quite Jesus, its presence is meant to alert the viewer to this painting being a Nativity scene of sorts. Runge’s goal, however, seems not to have been to depict the birth of Jesus specifically, but rather what he saw as the world being created anew each morning with the dispersal of dawn’s light, a divine miracle contained within the simple, daily fact of the sun rising each morning. Although deliberately reminiscent of other Nativity scenes, this baby at the painting’s center functions more as a symbol for birth and creation in general than as a direct allusion to baby Jesus. In using recognizable Christian symbolism, Runge’s goal was to express the religious reverence he felt for the natural world

The naked woman standing where the sun should be and shooting a bunch of baby angels out of her hand is—you guessed it—not quite Mary, either. She might be Aurora, goddess of dawn, or Venus, in a possible allusion to Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. (The latter would contribute to the painting’s overall theme of birth, and it isn’t difficult to see the parallels between the two women’s poses and their long, golden hair.) All of the figures in this painting originate from the central point occupied by the Aurora-Venus-Mary hybrid, imbuing it with a feeling of upward and outward motion which mimics the spreading of sunlight at dawn. This suggests that the baby angels are meant to be light personified, while at the same time aligning the woman at their center with yet another traditional female archetype: that of mother nature, giving birth to the surrounding children, the daylight, and the blooming amaryllises and lilies occupying the painting’s frame, all at once. Given all that, I imagine it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to suggest that Runge was a morning person.

The Morning was inspired by Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, first moved to Dresden in 1754, much to the excitement of many leading figures of German Romanticism, including not only Runge but also his good friend, the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1813, the admiring Goethe described it as “a world complete in itself,” a compliment which just about sums up how obsessed the rest of the Romantics were with it too. Runge first encountered the painting when studying at the Gemäldegalerie (where the painting is currently housed) in 1801, during the same period that he began work on his Tageszeiten. The color palettes of the two paintings are nearly identical, composed of jewel-bright reds, yellows, blues, and greens, and they share many other key elements too: a Jesus-figure, a Mary-figure, winged cherubs, spreading clouds, and a bunch of creepy, ghostly baby-faces staring out of the sky at the scene below. 

When he first caught sight of the Sistine Madonna, Runge praised it as a prime example of what he termed the “new landscape” in art. While it might seem strange to characterize a painting of the Madonna and child as a “landscape,” for Runge, the word had a very specific and personal meaning. In 1802, he wrote of the end of history painting and the dawn of what he thought of as a new artistic epoch: that of the “new landscape,” or symbolic landscape, which was a work of art that expressed what he saw as the essential unity of nature, humanity, and the divine. This was done not through the literal representation of scenes from nature, but rather through a complex network of symbols like those he fleshed out in his Tageszeiten. Although Runge’s idiosyncratic combination of Christian iconography, Greco-Roman mythology, and pantheistic nature worship in his symbolic landscapes didn’t quite take off like he expected it to, his work highlights a fascinating continuity between overtly religious art and Romantic landscape paintings like those of his friend Caspar David Friedrich, with whom he studied in Dresden; of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner in England; and of members of the Hudson River School in the United States. Where such landscapes merely hinted at the divine in nature, Runge tried to give such ideas a fully-realized form in his symbolic landscapes, devising in the process a style that was both wholly in line with the Romantic spirit and uniquely his own.



  1. Brown, Hilda Meldrum. The Quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk & Richard Wagner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  2. Littlejohns, Richard. “Philipp Otto Runge’s ‘Tageszeiten’ and Their Relationship to Romantic Nature Philosophy.” Studies in Romanticism 42, no. 1 (2003): 55-74.
  3. Tom Lubbock, “Philipp Otto Runge: The Child in the Meadow, from Morning (1809),” The Independent, December 23, 2005,
  4. Neumeyer, Alfred. “On German Romanticism and Runge.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 7, no. 1 (1973): 100-102.
  5. Grewe, Cordula. “Raphael’s Sistine Madonna Domesticated: A Return to Purity and Piety in German Prints.” In The Enchanted World of German Romantic Prints, 1770-1850, edited by John W. Ittman, 3-25. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2017.
  6. “Philipp Otto Runge’s Times of Day.” The Getty Research Institute. Accessed May 12, 2020.
  7. “The Small Morning.” Web Gallery of Art. Accessed May 12, 2020.
  8. Vaughan, William. German Romantic Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Comments (3)

Kanyun Zhou

The name of the painting is In the Morning. In China, there is an old saying that "the most important moment of the day is in the morning". However, the main subject of this painting is babies. The baby symbolizes birth and also represents hope. In the middle of the painting is a nude woman. She radiates light outward, just as the sun does. There are many angels surrounding her. There is a baby lying under the woman in the painting, radiating its own golden aura of hope. This may represent Mary and the birth of Jesus. In addition, the colors of this painting are used in a very harmonious way. The color tone of the whole painting is warm, which gives a homely feeling.


I like the colors in this painting because they enhance the image and make the sunrise look realistic and adds a joyous feeling.