caspar david friedrich the stages of life artwork
The painting is set on a sea shore and shows in the foreground an aged man with his back turned to the viewer, walking towards two adults and two children on a hilltop overlooking a harbour.  The figures are echoed by five ships shown in the harbour, each at a different distance from the shore, an allegorical reference to the different stages of human life, to the end of a journey, to the closeness of death.
Alternatively, other critics have interpreted the two ships in the distance as the mother and father sailing off to live their lives and gain experience and wisdom as parents, and the large ship closest to the shore as the old man – one who has lived a full life, built up many experiences and is finally pulling into the harbor at the end of life. 
So these mood swings of Friedrich could have been more symptomatic of a bi-polar disorder.
So what do we have before us in Friedrich’s allegorical painting about mortality and the transient nature of life? The setting for the painting is dusk on the peninsular headland at Utkiek, overlooking the entrance to the northeastern German Hanseatic seaport of Griefswald, which is bathed by the light from the gold and lavender evening sky. Griefswald was the birthplace of Caspar David. In the foreground we see an elderly man wearing a long brown coat and black hat standing with his back to us looking out to sea. He walks with the aid of a stick towards a group of people. In front of him is a younger man with a top hat. He has turned towards the elderly man beckoning him on and pointing something out to him. Seated on the ground at the feet of the young man is a woman and between the young couple and the sea we can see two children. These in fact were family members of Caspar David. The elderly man is the artist himself. The young man with the top hat was Caspar David’s nephew Johann Heinrich and the young woman, his daughter Emma.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818), oil on canvas, 90.5 × 71 cm, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.
Several of Friedrich’s paintings look as if they might contain narrative. For example, his Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818) seems to show Friedrich and his wife on honeymoon, but there is a third person wearing a tricorn hat whose presence is hard to explain.
This new way of creating landscapes reinforced the idea that the viewer should contemplate the sublimity of the natural world and read into it an expression of the spiritual. The potential for deep meaning in a sparse, non-narrative style, would be critical to modernist abstraction. This painting, in particular, has been linked with the post World War II Color Field paintings of Mark Rothko, also intended to cultivate a spiritual experience for the viewer.
This simple painting of a mountain peak awash in a white mist of early dawn fog, surrounded by barely discernable pine trees and rocky outcroppings manifests Friedrich’s ideals of the Romantic landscape. This majestic, remote view of monumental nature implied a connection to a higher power, particularly in its scale and use of light. Here, a break in the clouds allows light to shine through, as if illuminating the mountain peak with a divine light.
Although many of Friedrich’s paintings were set in imagined landscapes, The Stages of Life is recognisably located at Utkiek, near Friedrich’s birthplace of Greifswald in today’s northeastern Germany.
The painting is set on a sea shore and shows in the foreground an aged man with his back turned to the viewer, walking towards two adults and two children on a hilltop overlooking a harbour. The figures are echoed by five ships shown in the harbour, each at a different distance from the shore, an allegorical reference to the different stages of human life, to the end of a journey, to the closeness of death.