Sunday, 19 July 2009

Arnold Böcklin

The Isle of the Dead, 1880
Oil on Canvas 111 x 115cm
Museé D’Orsay, Paris
November 2001

I saw this painting in a retrospective exhibition of his work to mark the centenary of his death. There was a large number of paintings, tracing Böcklin's development from Late Romanticism to Symbolism. Rediscovered in the 1920’s by by the surrealist painters, Böcklin became a strong inspiration in his fantastical and iconoclast vision of mythology. Painted mainly from his imagination late in his career, the first version of “The Isle of the Dead” was painted in Florence, and might be based on the cemetery close to his studio. It is probably his most famous painting and he eventually completed five versions of it.

It was certainly the most moving painting in the exhibition, and wasn't surprised to learn that a second version was painted at the request of a young widow who wanted an "image to dream by". It was at her request that he added the coffin and female figure, in allusion to her husband's death of diphtheria years earlier. Subsequently, he added these elements to the first version of the painting. The funereal serenity of what became a symbolist masterpiece was originally titled "A Tranquil Place" perhaps draws on his own harrowing experiences with cholera epidemics. He lost five of his children in infancy and his baby daughter was buried in the cemetery in Florence.

The painting shows a boat with a single oarsman manoeuvring near a small rocky island - in the prow stands a solitary shrouded woman, with a coffin draped in a white cloth. The low setting sun illuminates the backs of the oarsman, “passengers” and the edges of the few buildings on the shore. The morbidity of the scene is reinforced by the sepulchral portals and windows of these buildings that have been hewn into the cliff face enclosing the landing. We are in no doubt that the boat is arriving at the family vaults and burial chambers. Amongst the rocks on the isle are several tall cypress trees, dominating both the painting and the scene with their immobility and silence.

There is some argument about whether the boat is arriving or leaving the isle centred on the fact that the prow of the boat indicates the latter, however, the rower is standing so he could be just ensuring that he docks stern first to allow the coffin to be easily unloaded. The confusion comes about because he added the woman and coffin after the painting was complete, changing the meaning of the work. Whilst this conjecture adds to the mystery of the painting it doesn’t alter the melancholic mood of the work. Nor do we need to know the background to the painting to know that it is supposed to "produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door"[1].

[1] Böcklin, Arnold. Unattributed, but I did find that Clement Greenberg wrote in 1947 that Böcklin's work "is one of the most consummate expressions of all that was now disliked about the latter half of the nineteenth century." An indication perhaps that Böcklin must have been successful on his own terms and interesting that this piece has been referenced by a number of contemporary artists!

©blackdog 2009


  1. Yes, who might miss this famous painting "Die Toteninsel" in a blog called " The painting of Melancholy"? It is a icon- settled in its time, the Fin de Siecle- and in some way even till now! In an excellent, succinct way you summed up the complicated and difficult 'history', theme and motifs, influences and allusions, and the interesting reception of this painting- surely a subject for a whole life to deal with.
    In my opinion there is an ambiguous feeling: On the one site I too am fascinated by the theme, the title, the colours, the contrast of dark and white, the supranatural lighting, and the melancholic, mysterious, and enigmatic atmosphere and the "stillness"..., on the other site there is an inner revolt while I'm looking at this morbid sujet, being aware of the almost kitschy beatification of death and decline, and since I know that this painting was one of Hitler's favourites, I believe to recognize some ideological danger in it. I prefer an interpretation which mentions the antique elements like Charon driving the soul in a boat across the Styx to the isle of death, the Elysian fields ("Insel der Seligen" in German and in Greek imagination)- I read that Böcklin thought of painting here the end of the 'golden' antique 'age', just in the sense of decline and decay in his time... In any case it is a very interesting painting having inspired so many artists in literature, music, fine arts...- although Böcklin himself said "what we see, it is only a image, not a rebus ("Bilderrätsel)" we have to decode! He himself suffered from a hard life, he lost 8 of 14 own children and often he fell in a deeply melancholic mood reflecting about death, illness, and decay- in this way his painting might be also a kind of autobiographical processing of his personal pains- in such a sweet-sad-beautiful-calming way!

  2. My thanks for your additions to my reading of the image Philine. Most of the paintings in the show had a mythological content so I am sure it was in his mind originally. It is the addition of the woman/coffin that changes the meaning, introducing the ambiguity. The kitsch you mention was typical of the pre-raphaelites too and was clearly wery popular at the time.