Arnold Böcklin. Part 2 – Die Toteninsel

Self Portrait by Arnold Böcklin (1885)
Self Portrait by Arnold Böcklin (1885)

As I said in my previous blog there was a distinct change in the subject and style of Böcklin’s art in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Gone were the realist and naturalist landscape works which concentrated on the beauty of nature; depictions which included very few things, such as people or animals, which he believed would detract from nature’s magnificence.  Around 1854 Böcklin’s paintings began to become idealised with mythological connotations.  My original intention had been to look at the life and works of Böcklin in two parts.  Firstly, his early landscape paintings and secondly, his later symbolist paintings.  However I decided that his most famous painting, Die Toteninsel, should have a blog of its own.

Arnold Böcklin left Italy in 1857 and returned to Basel and the following year he accepted a commission to paint the dining hall of the merchant and Royal Hanoverian Consul, Karl  Wedekind in Hannover.  Wedekind also went on to purchase some of Böcklin’s paintings.  Financial and health issues began to blight Böcklin’s life around this time.  However his financial problems were to change when he and his family moved to Munich where he exhibited a number of his paintings at the Munich Kusnstverein.   It proved to be a tremendous success.  Fourteen of his paintings were purchased by Friedrich Graf von Schack, the Munich art collector, who also offered him the position of Professor of Landscape Painting at the newly founded Kunstschule in Weimar.  After completing four years of teaching art, Böcklin had managed to save some money, enough to return to his beloved Italy in 1862.

Isle of the Dead (Basel version) by Arnold Brocklin (1880)
Isle of the Dead (Kunstmuseum Basel, First version) by Arnold Brocklin (1880)

I now come to the painting by Böcklin which is his most famous and most talked about work of art, Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead).   According to Franz Zelger in his 1991 book, Arnold Böcklin: Die Toteninsel, Selbstheroisierung und Abgesang der abendländischen Kultur, the subject for this haunting composition came about in 1880 when  Böcklin received a commission to paint a “picture for dreaming”.

The commission came from Marie Berna, an American-born widow of a German diplomat, Georg von Berna, who had died of diphtheria in 1865. She was to later marry Count Waldermar von Oriola in 1880 and became Countess of Oriola.

 It all came about when she visited Böcklin’s studio in Florence.  Whilst at his studio she saw an unfinished first version of this evocative painting which is now housed in the Kunstmuseum Basel. This first version is an oil on canvas painting measuring 110 x 156cms, which was commissioned by Alexander Günther.  The title of the painting seems to have changed over time but Böcklin, on completion of the first version sent a letter to Gunther and wrote:

“…Endlich ist die Toteninsel soweit fertig, dass ich glaube, sie werde einigermaßen den Eindruck machen…”

(finally with the Toteninsel finished I think it will make quite the impression).

Isle of the Dead (Metropolitan Musum New York, Second version) by Arnold Böcklin (1880)
Isle of the Dead (Metropolitan Museum New York. Second version) by Arnold Böcklin (1880)

Marie Berna was fascinated by what she termed a dream image and immediately commissioned Böcklin to paint a version of this work.   Marie told Böcklin that it would be a painting in memory of her late husband and also be a “a picture for dreaming”.  She even made a special request that Böcklin should include in the work, besides the solitary figure who is rowing the boat, a draped coffin and a shrouded female figure standing up in the boat. Böcklin must have been persuaded that the additions Marie Berna had asked for would enhance the painting because he also added the shrouded female and draped coffin to the first version.  Although, to receive a commission was good news, Böcklin’s health, both physical and mental, was deteriorating.  His inability to have full use of his painting arm had lessened and that in itself caused him to have bouts of deep depression.

So what caused Böcklin to paint such a sombre picture, such as the Isle of the Dead?  Maybe the answer lies in a 1909 book his son, Carlo, co-wrote with Ferdinand Runkel, entitled Neben meiner Kunst. Flugstudien, Briefe und Persönliches von und über Arnold Böcklin.  His son wrote about his father’s physical and mental health at the time and the effort needed for him to carry on painting:

“…In the summer of 1880, the master’s painful afflictions precipitated a serious nervous depression. His lack of interest in working had been joined by fatigue and such a deep melancholy that those around him were seriously concerned about him. All manner of means were vainly sought to alleviate his bodily torments. …….. His heart and nerves had been adversely affected by an ample dose of salicylic acid that had become necessary. …..… As the last resort, his worried spouse hit upon the idea of a change of air, and Böcklin, who had always been a wanderer and derived his best artistic inspiration from the countryside, took up this idea with rapidly reviving spirits. In the company of (his pupil) Friedrich Albert Schmidt, he travelled to Ischia, the delightful island off the coast of Naples, in July, and sought the assuagement of his pains under the gleaming sun of the most beautiful summer sky and in the blue waves of the gulf. However, he was still with little hope on his departure, a downtrodden victim of his sufferings, and his final gloomy words to his wife were: “You will see me again in Florence either healthy or not at all.” …… Böcklin’s depressive mood at the time (was) so strong that, in his endless hours of agony, he seems often to have toyed with and considered the idea of taking his own life. The pain alone would not have disheartened this powerful man, but the rheumatic inflammation of his joints had also stricken his right shoulder, and, with his creative hand, with whose dexterity a new world had been created, Böcklin was only able to guide the brush in great pain and with great effort…”

Böcklin sent a letter to Marie Berna on June 29th 1880, in which he wrote:

“…The picture Die Gräberinsel (The Isle of Tombs) was dispatched to you last Wednesday. You will be able to dream yourself into the realm of the Shades until you believe you feel the soft, warm breeze that wrinkles the sea. Until you will shy from breaking the solemn silence with a spoken word….”

In this second version of the painting, which was given to Marie Berna, we see the figure of the widow dressed in white accompanying her husband’s draped coffin.  The boat heads towards a rocky isle with its high cliffs, into which are carved tomb chambers.  This second version, given to Marie Berna, was an oil on wood painting and slightly smaller than the first version, measuring 29 x 48in (74 x 122cms).  It was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1926

Isle of the Dead (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)
Isle of the Dead (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

Because of the success of the first two versions, Böcklin’s art dealer Fritz Gurlitt managed to persuade him to paint three more versions of Die Toteninsel but this time the suggestion was made that the sky should be much lighter.

Initials A B on the Isle of the Dead (Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)
Initials A B on the Isle of the Dead (Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

If you look closely at the outer edge of the high rock on the right of the third version of the painting, you will see Böcklin’s initials, “A B”, over the lintel of the burial chamber. It is interesting to note that the provenance of this painting shows Gurlitt sold the painting in 1933 to one of Böcklin’s admirers – Adolph Hitler.  He had the painting hung at the Berghof in Obersalzburg and later moved it to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.  This version is now housed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Black and white photograph of the fourth version of Die Toteninsel (1844)
Black and white photograph of the fourth version of Die Toteninsel (1844)

Böcklin painted the fourth version in 1884.  This work of art was bought by the entrepreneur and avid art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, the second son of the German industrialist August Thyssen, and it was kept in one of his banks.  Unfortunately it was destroyed during a World War II bombing raid and all that can be seen of this fourth version is a black-and-white photograph.

Die Toteninsel (Fifth version, Leipzig) by Arnold Bôcklin (1886)
Die Toteninsel (Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig. Fifth version) by Arnold Bôcklin (1886)

The fifth version of Böcklin’s painting, completed in 1886 resides at the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig.

In my third and final blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at some of his portraiture as well as his Symbollst paintings.  Symbolism was a late 19th-century movement and thrived throughout Europe between 1886 and 1900 in almost every area of the arts. It began with literature, poetry and the theatre and later flourished in music and visual art.  There was a definite connection between Symbolism in art and Pre-Raphaelite and Romanticism and in some ways it was viewed as an antidote to realism and naturalism in which the artist sought to capture exactly what was before them, warts and all.  Symbolists, on the other hand try to find a profound reality from within their imagination, their dreams, and even their unconscious.  From being compartmentalised as being a realist landscape painter, Böcklin, because of his later works of art, was looked upon as a Symbolist.  In my final blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at some of these works.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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