“Isle of the Dead” by Arnold Böcklin
“Isle of the Dead” by Arnold Böcklin depicts a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of water. A small rowing boat is heading for the watergate and seawall on the island.
On the boat, an oarsman rows the boat from the stern. In the bow, facing the island is a standing figure clad in white. In front of the white figure, is a white, festooned coffin.
The center of the tiny island is dominated by a grove of tall, dark cypress trees, which are tightly hemmed in by cliffs.
Cypress trees are associated with cemeteries and mourning. Furthermore, the inner rock cliff faces appear to be tomb or interment portals.
Böcklin described it as:
“a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.”
Isle of the Dead is the best-known painting of Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin. Prints of this painting were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century and could be found in many Berlin homes.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, June 1880 version
Böcklin produced several different versions of the “Isle of the Dead” between 1880 and 1901,
Böcklin completed the first version of the painting in May 1880, which he kept it himself. It is now on exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel.
Böcklin painted a smaller version of wood, in June 1880, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
The third version was painted in 1883. Starting with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s initials: “A.B.”
The 1883 version was put up for sale in 1933, and Adolf Hitler acquired it. It is now on exhibition at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. (The image of this version of the painting is at the top of this page)
Kunstmuseum Basel, May 1880, the original version
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, had a copy of “Isle of the Dead” by Arnold Böcklin in his clinic. Vladimir Lenin, the head of Soviet Russia, also had a print of the painting in his office.
The fourth version in 1884, was burned after a bombing attack during World War II and survived only as a photograph.
A fifth version was commissioned in 1886 is exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig.
Museum der bildenden Künste, 1886, the Fifth and final version
Critics have interpreted the oarsman as representing the boatman Charon, who ferried souls to the underworld in Greek mythology.
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.
A coin to pay Charon for passage was sometimes placed in or on the mouth of a dead person.
In this interpretation for the painting, the water in the picture is either the River Styx or the River Acheron, from Greek mythology, and his white-clad passenger, is a recently deceased soul, transiting to the afterlife.
“Isle of Life” by Arnold Böcklin
In 1888, Böcklin created a painting called “Isle of Life.” This painting was intended as an antipode to the “Isle of the Dead.”
The “Isle of Life” also shows a small island, but with all signs of joy and life.
“Isle of Life” by Arnold Böcklin, 1880, Kunstmuseum Basel
Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss symbolist painter. He studied at the Düsseldorf Academy and 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.
Isle of the Dead
- Title: Isle of the Dead
- German: Die Toteninsel
- Artist: Arnold Böcklin
- Year: 1883
- Type: oil on panel
- Dimensions: Height: 80 cm (31.4 in); Width: 150 cm (59 in)
- Museum: Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1883 – Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm
- Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, June 1880 – Oil on board; 74 × 122 cm
- Museum: Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel, May 1880 – Oil on canvas; 111 × 155 cm
- Museum: Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, 1886 – Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm
- Name: Arnold Böcklin
- Born: 1827, Basel, Switzerland
- Died: 1901 (aged 73), Fiesole, Italy
- Nationality: Swiss
- Movement: Symbolism
- Notable Works
Documentary Isle of Dead
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”
– Emily Dickinson
Photo Credit: 1) Arnold Böcklin / Public domain