The Island of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin

The Island of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin (1880-1886)

My Daily Art Display today is The Island of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin.  He painted five versions of this work between 1880 and 1886 but curiously never gave any a title.  It was his Berlin art dealer Fritz Gurlitt who invented the name for the painting.  For me, today’s offering exudes a sinister air of menace.   For some reason, it reminds me of death and it permeates a feeling of foreboding.  It is believed that the English Cemetery in Florence, where his baby daughter was buried, and which was close to Böcklin’s studio was part of the inspiration for this painting.

The earliest version of this picture was commissioned by Marie Berna whose husband had recently died.  The predominate feature of the painting is the high-cliffed rocky island, viewed at night across an expanse of water.  The centre of this island is dominated by cypress trees which were customarily associated with graveyards.  Dark storm-like clouds gather in the background.  Approaching, and almost at the island, is a small row boat carrying a white figure who is standing ready to alight from the craft.

Should we look for an interpretation of this picture?  Should we seek some symbolism for various facets of the painting?  According to the artist himself there is no need, as this, as he termed it, was simply “a dream picture”.  Böcklin liked people to find their own meanings in his paintings.  A number of themes used in his paintings stemmed from classical literature and many believe the upright figure dressed in white in today’s painting resembled Charon the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Hades.

Arnold Böcklin was born in 1827 in Basel.  He studied in Dusseldorf.  At the start of his artistic career he concentrated on landscapes and travelled extensively through Europe where he studied Renaissance art and discovered the wonders of Mediterranean landscapes.  He returned to his homeland in 1871 but spent the last days of his life in Fiesole a town near Florence where he died in 1901 at the age of 73.

Today’s painting inspired many people.  Rachmaninoff after seeing the painting in Paris in 1907 composed a symphonic poem (Op.29) as did Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen and Max Reger.  The artist and his works were a favourite of Adolf Hitler who at one time owned eleven of Böcklin’s paintings.  I have also read that in the series finale of the TV drama series Lost a driver from Oceanic Airways wears a uniform with the name tag ‘Bocklin,’ presumably referencing this painting.