WHEN spring arrives, the first rays of sunshine begin to tempt people off their couches and into nature for a walk. But few can top the Germans when it comes to Wanderlust. The Megamarsch, founded two years ago, sees hikes of 100 km in 24 hours in seven big German cities, attracting a growing number of participants (sometimes, as this year in Munich, more than logistics will allow). The annual “Tag des Wanderns” (Hiking Day), held on May 14th, promotes hiking in tours and workshops all over the country. And with 1.2m members, the Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV), founded in 1869, is the biggest mountaineering sports association in the world. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, pulls on her boots with her husband nearly every summer holiday, often heading to South Tyrol. 

Naturally, this is reflected in the culture. Where else would hiking books top the bestseller lists? Christine Thürmer has hiked 40,000 km in Europe, America and Australia since she left her job, her flat and her normal life in 2007, fully embracing a new existence she describes in her book “Hiking.Biking.Paddling”, published in March. In 2008 she was awarded a “Triple Crown” for having hiked the full length of North America’s Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Appalachian Trail (at the time, fewer than 100 people had completed all three). And while Germans like places like Patagonia or Alaska, she says, European hiking can be spectacular too, mentioning a recent hike from Koblenz to the southern tip of Spain. It was close to home, after all, where Germans learned to wandern, a verb that combines some of the meanings of “walk”, “hike” and “ramble”. 

German Wanderlust is associated with the Romantic period, when hiking first became a leisure pursuit rather than something that wandering journeymen did to make a living. Around 1800 hiking became an expression of a modern lifestyle and a source of fascination and inspiration for many composers, poets and painters. It also inspired Birgit Verwiebe, a curator at the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) in Berlin and a passionate hiker herself, to compile the first art exhibition on Wanderlust

Italy was the object of longing for German artists in the 18th century, but German Romantics, after they had travelled the South, often then embarked on long hikes closer to home: through Germany along the Rhine valleys, the Eifel National Park, the Harz Mountains or the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in the Saxon Switzerland National Park. The last of these inspired Caspar David Friedrich, Germany’s best-known Romantic painter. His world-famous “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818), a loan from Kunsthalle Hamburg, is undoubtedly one of the exhibition’s highlights.  

It was the Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) German literary movement of the late 18th century that spurred the discovery of nature. Alexander von Humboldt, a renowned natural scientist, explorer, traveller and wanderer, was also an influential proponent of Romantic philosophy. Generations of scientists, artists and walkers all over the world—including the English poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey—were influenced by his traveller’s diaries. A portrait of Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, as well as a drawing by Ferdinand Keller depicting the botanist exploring plants in Latin America, shows the model of German wanderers.

Around half the masterpieces on show are from the National Gallery’s own fine collection of 19th-century art; the other half includes loans from national and European museums. Even if prototypically German, hiking became popular all over Europe—represented by “A Mountain Climber” (1912), a grand portrait by Danish painter Jens Ferdinand Willumsen, on loan from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. (That it is of Willumsen’s wife also reveals how hiking became more popular among women at the turn of the 20th century.) Gustave Courbet, one of the most remarkable figures of French Realism, painted himself as a hiker in 1854, in “The Meeting, or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet”. Courbet’s painting inspired Paul Gaugin, who in turn also painted himself as a hiker. It is fitting then that the two paintings will finally “meet”, for the first time, at the show in Berlin.

The exhibition’s magnificent paintings not only evoke the spectacular hikes the Romantics undertook without GPS, hiking apps and modern outdoor clothing. They also, first and foremost, reflect the Romantic sense of nature’s sublime beauty and wonder. In times of digital snapshots which can be taken and spread from every mountain peak on this planet, it is nice to be reminded of such striking, crafted canvases.

“Wanderlust. From Caspar David Friedrich to Auguste Renoir”, May 10th—September 16th at Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin