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Arnold Böcklin

Arnold Böcklin

Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss symbolist painter. He was born in Basel and studied at the Düsseldorf Academy.

Böcklin traveled to Antwerp and Brussels, where he copied the works of Flemish and Dutch masters. He then went to Paris, where he worked at the Louvre, and painted several landscapes.

Later in Rome, new influences brought allegorical and mythological figures into his compositions. Influenced by Romanticism, Böcklin’s symbolist use of imagery derived from mythology and legend often overlapped with the aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Many of his paintings portray mythological subjects in settings involving classical architecture, often allegorically exploring death and mortality in the context of a strange, fantasy world.

Böcklin influenced Surrealist painters like Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí. Marcel Duchamp named Arnold Böcklin as having a significant influence on his art.

Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle

“Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle” by Arnold Böcklin depicts the artist standing while holding his paintbrush and palette. By his shoulder is a skeleton head with a hand playing the violin next to his ear.

Arnold Böcklin claimed that the personification of death in his self-portrait was an afterthought. According to the background story to this painting, Böcklin only painted in the figure of Death in response to his friends’ question asking:

“what he seemed to be listening to?”

Many artists’ self-portraits with a “memento more” have a long history in the arts. The inspiration for this figure of Death playing the fiddle had many influences for a well-traveled artist like Böcklin.

This self-portrait inspired many other painters to paint similar portraits of themselves. This subject relates to the search for the ultimate that characterizes any self-portrait.

It is an example of the inspiration that many creative people draw from the constant proximity of death.

Memento Mori

A memento mori, which is Latin, means ‘remember that you must die.’ It is an artistic and symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death.

The expression ‘memento mori’ was developed during the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

However, this reminder exists in many cultures other than Christianity. In The Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), a 13th-century Icelandic compilation attributed to the god Odin offers the following proverb, that exists in many different forms in many different cultures:

“Animals die,
friends die,
and thyself, too, shall die;
but one thing I know that never dies
the tales of the one who died.”

Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle

  • Title:                    Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
  • Artist:                  Arnold Böcklin
  • Year:                    1872
  • Type:                    Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:        Height: 75 cm (29.5 in); Width: 61 cm (24 in)
  • Museum:             Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Highlights of Arnold Böcklin

Arnold Böcklin

  • Name:                Arnold Böcklin
  • Born:                 1827, Basel, Switzerland
  • Died:                 1901 (aged 73), Fiesole, Italy
  • Nationality:       Swiss
  • Movement:       Symbolism
  • Notable Works

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“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”
– Emily Dickinson

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Photo Credit: 1) Arnold Böcklin / Public domain

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