Ernest Biéler

                                           The Braiding of Straw by Ernest Biéler

If you went into a room, on the walls of which were a large number of paintings by the great artists of the past but without identifying labels, how many do you think you would recognise?   If there were three painting in the room done by each artist, although not grouped together, how many would you be able connect to each artist.   For the art history aficionados, maybe the brushstrokes would act like fingerprints.  Maybe the colours used by the individual artists would lead you to solve the quest.  If they are figurative paintings maybe an artist has his/her own way of depicting them.  The reason for those questions is that my artist today has such recognisable paintings that I am sure after reading this blog and looking at his paintings you will be able to identify his work when you see it.  Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Swiss painter Ernest Biéler.  He was a multi-talented artist, draughtsman, and printmaker. He worked in oil, tempera, watercolour, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic and pencil. He also created mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Portrait of Nathalie Biéler, the artist’s mother by Ernest Biéler(1906)


Portrait of Samuel Biéler,the artist’s father by Ernest Biéler (1906)








Ernest Biéler was born on July 31st, 1863, in Rolle in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is located on the north-western shore of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Lausanne.  His father, Samuel Biéler, was a veterinarian and his mother Natalie de Butzow, of Finnish-Polish descent, was a teacher of music and art. Ernest’s maternal grandfather was in the diplomatic corps, and was a one-time Finnish ambassador to Switzerland until his sudden death, which  brought difficult financial times to the family.

                                                       Paysage a Saviese by Ernest Biéler (1925)

Samuel Biéer and his wife Nathalie had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. With finances tight, Ernest’s father moved his family to Lausanne, where he had been offered a well-paid post as a lecturer in zoology at the University of Lausanne. Although little is known with regards Ernest Biéler’s early childhood, it is understood that in 1880, aged seventeen he graduated from the College of Art in Lausanne and then, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian.


Often in our lives we do something that unbeknown to us at the time will affects our future plans.  For twenty-one-year-old Ernest Biéler the time was the summer of 1884 during a walking holiday in the high peaks of the Vallais region, in the southwest of Switzerland. To its south lies Italy and the Aosta Valley and Piedmont and to the southwest France the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of France.  During his hike, Ernest visited the remote mountain village of Savièse. 

                                    Girl with Scarf by Ernest Biéler

From there, the beautiful landscapes stretched in all directions, and the people that inhabited the village seemed to almost have circumvented civilization.  The village, its people and the spectacular landscape had a great effect on Biéler and would feature in many of his works.  This village was to become a great part of his life and through his depictions of the village and the people it would cement his place in the art world which was what he had always strived for.

         Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse)                                                                                           by Ernest Biéler (1886)

Biéler was fascinated by the Savièse folk and their traditions.  Add to this the ideal outdoor conditions with the brilliant light, which was ideal for plein air painting  He went back to the Savièse in the autumn of 1886 and completed numerous sketches that he would use later for one of his masterpieces.  He organised for the following summer to have a large stretcher delivered to his Paris studio for him to complete his ambitious work. Biéler completed the painting in his Parisian studio using his preliminary sketches.  The finished work entitled Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse) was extremely large, measuring 204 x 302cms. The setting for this work was not one particular church in a particular village but rather a commonplace church with its mighty stone pier and its arched doorway.  Before us we see a large group of women gathered together in the warm sunlight.  They are all turned out in their dark blue Sunday dresses and are following the mass from the outside.  Some are diligently studying their prayer books whilst others have been designated as child minders.  By its composition and handling, the work was bound to arouse the interest of avant-garde circles: the figures are made monumental by the close framing.  Look at the way Biéler has referenced the effect of the intense sunlight. The way the folds of the clothes reflects this penetrating light.  The effect of the light can be seen in the way the artist has added the bluish shadows, applied in broad brushstrokes, to the walls.  We can see in this work how Biéler was influenced by the French Impressionists.   The painting was seen by a counsellor of state from Vaud, Eugène Ruffy, who bought it for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne.  The one stipulation of the sale was that Biéler was allowed to keep the painting for a while so that he could present it at the Salon of 1887 in Paris.

                                                                 Retour du bapteme by Ernest Biéler

Many painters in the late nineteenth century clung to the beauty of rural life and religious ceremonies in a way of counteracting the swiftly changing world due to industrialisation which witnessed rural people leaving their communities to search for their dreams in the towns and cities.  Biéler and many artists such as Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet depicting such ceremonies and village communities was a way of remembering the peaceful times in rural communities.

                                                             Mother and Child by Ernest Biéler

In 1892, Biéler was struggling financially and had to sell his property to pay off the many debts he had accumulated. He left Paris and settled in Geneva and was fortunate enough to receive a commission to paint the ceiling in the new concert hall, the Victoria Hall. The building came about thanks to the Consul of England, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who was based in Geneva and had two great passions, navigation, and music, and being one of the extremely rich could satisfy both of them. He arranged that the Geneva architect John Camoletti built the Hall, and he dedicated it to his sovereign Queen Victoria.   In 1894, the building was completed.  The theme of Biéler’s ceiling paintings was Harmonia, queen of Thebes, the mythical figure of harmony.

                                 Sketch for the ceiling of the Victoria Hall mural by Ernest Bieler (1893)

On September 16th 1984, the concert hall was engulfed in flames that partly destroyed the interior décor. That night the interior of the Hall was devastated and the world-famous organ simply melted and collapsed. It was soon decided to restore the interior of the hall as far as possible in the original style, which was flamboyant and heavily decorated. The City having decided to restore the building, also decided that the ceiling décor which had been painted by Ernest Biéler had to be replaced by a contemporary work by Dominique Appia.

                                                               Naked, Ringing the Bell by Ernest Biéler

One original ceiling image which caused a controversy at the time was Biéler’s painting, Naked, ringing the bell.  However, the commission was hailed a success and Biéler’s reputation grew, bringing financial rewards.

                                                                     La Râclette, by Ernest Biéler (1903)

In 1896, Biéler rented a house for a workshop in Savièse, and immersed himself in village life but he had to return to Paris so as to carry on with his studies at the Académie Julian.  Along with fellow artists, such as Édouard Eugène Francis Vallet, Raphaël Ritz, and others, Biéler founded the Ecole of Savièse. This name became synonymous with his unique style of work, in which we see an extraordinary level of detail, that became extremely popular with the public.  In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest Beeler began building a large house of his own in Savièse with his own workshop and various auxiliary facilities.   In 1900, aged 37, he exhibited two works that earned him a silver medal in the Paris Salon and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.

                                                                   Vue de Savièse by Ernest Biéler

Around 1906, Biéler became undecided about his painting style.  Should he abandon his realistic painting style in favour of modernism, which rejected history and conservative values such as realistic depiction of subjects and which adopted a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.  When asked whether he was a realist or an idealist, he simply replied:

“…An artist can strive for both. One does not exclude the other. The national feeling has nothing to do with art…”

                                               Le vieux duc de savize cloutiergranois by Ernest Biéler

In 1909, at the age of 46, Ernest Biéler married a Parisian divorcee, Michelle Laronde, who already had a young son and was an art tutor.  They decided to live in Paris rather than the village of Savièse.  The reason, as he wrote to a friend, was because his new wife was “too urban to live in Savièse.” In fact she did not want to have anything to do with Switzerland which caused a problem for Biéler, as his main source of income was from Switzerland, where he was still receiving numerous commissions, and for that reason he had to stay for long periods in Switzerland without his new wife.

                                                        Deux jeunes Valaisannes by Ernest Biéler

The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be a problematical and difficult period for Biéler.    In 1911 his father died.  Seven years later his mother died and during that intervening period war raged in Europe.  In 1916, Biéler reluctantly decided to leave his wife and the French capital and move to Vevey, a Swiss town, close to Lake Geneva and about thirty miles north-west of his beloved Savièse.  In 1917 he buys a house in Montellier-sur-Rivaz.  Now living apart from his wife, there followed the inevitable divorce in 1921.

                                   L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters) by Ernest Biéler (1912)

During this decade, it was not just these personal problems of death and divorce that he had to deal with, he also had an artistic setback.  He had been working for four years on his exceptionally large (146.3 x 376.4 cms) painting, L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters).  Although it was acclaimed when it was shown in Paris in 1912 and subsequently bought by the Gottfried Keller Foundation, after it was exhibited in Switzerland, it failed to persuade him to remain in the French capital.  Biéler had meant the work to be an art nouveau manifesto with the aim to establish in Paris the importance of this graphic style and of the seldom-used medium of egg tempera.  The work is painted on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and set within a large wooden frame which had been fashioned to Biéler’s instructions. Its long, narrow format recalls the works seen on cassoni, or marriage chests which are a rich and showy Italian type of chest.  These long and narrow paintings had been revived by the English Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The smooth-flowing depiction is of thirteen princesses fanning out in the foreground which is offset by a number of the trees in the background. The basin into which the women stare, occupies nearly half of the painting.  The setting is autumn with fallen leaves on the ground and the surface of the pond.  The women are kneeling, gazing into the pond, fascinated by their own reflections and worry at what they see – their unstoppable ageing.  However, this depiction is all about Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, enchantment and the feminisation of heroes which was popular at we entered the twentieth century.

                                              Jeune Chevrier (Young Goatherd) by Ernest Biéler

In 1917 Ernest set up shop in a vast studio in Montellier near Rivaz and there he began producing the great decorative works that will ensure him lasting fame. He created stained-glass windows for churches (Saint Francis, Lausanne; Saint Martin, Vevey; Saint Germain, Savièse), mounted-canvas ceilings (Victoria Hall, Geneva; Theatre of Bern) and frescoes (Jenisch Museum, Vevey; the main hall of the Greater Council, Sion).  

                                                       L’Homme des Camps by Ernest Biéler, (1917)

From 1923, Beeler spent the last 25 years of his life in Savièse. In 1928, when he was sixty-five years of age, he married for the second time.  His second wife was Madeleine de Kerenville, who was 20 years his junior.

Ernest Biéler died in Lausanne on June 25th, 1948 and is buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery in Vevey.

Arnold Böcklin. Part 3 – The latter years. Portraiture and Symbolism

Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73
Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73

In my final part of the Arnold Böcklin story I want to look at his portraiture and some of his more evocative Symbolist works.  He completed many self portraits, two of which I have shown you at the start of the last couple of blogs.  His portraits also included ones of his second wife, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and their daughter Clara.

Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)
Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

In the first blog about Arnold Böcklin I mentioned his two wives.  He married Louise Schmidt in 1850 but she died a year later and then in June 1853, Böcklin married his second wife, a seventeen year old Italian girl, the daughter of a papal guard, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and she featured in a number of his works of art.  One such portrait was entitled Portrait of Angela Böcklin as a Muse which he completed in 1863.

Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)
Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

Böcklin completed another portrait of his wife that year entitled Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil.  This was a more sombre depiction of his wife.  It was painted when she was twenty-seven years of age.  It is only a small oil on canvas work within the stretcher frame just measuring 19 x 14 cms.  This was a painting he completed for himself.  There is a certain intimacy about the work.  The artists depicts his wife with a black veil on her head and this veil serves the purpose of being a frame for his wife’s face, the colour of which is in contrast to the simple olive green background.  Angela Böcklin seems to be very thoughtful, even slightly sad.  Maybe she is in mourning for we know she and Arnold had fourteen children but only eight of them survived him.   We take it for granted that we will die before our children but in the nineteenth century that was not always the case, in fact the opposite was often true, and although it was a common occurrence for children to die young we should never underestimate its tragic consequences.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

In 1872 he completed one of a number of portraits of his daughter Clara.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)
Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)

In 1876, when she was twenty-one years of age, Böcklin painted another portrait of her.   It was also in this year that Clara married the sculptor, Peter Bruckmann.

Böcklin became somewhat fixated by death and this is borne out with his evocative painting Die Toteninsel, which I talked about in the previous blog.  This preoccupation, which could have been because of the loss of his children, was clearly seen in yet another of his self portraits, which he completed in 1872, shortly after the death of his young daughter, and was entitled Self Portrait with Death as a Fiddler.  It was completed whilst Böcklin was in Munich having just travelled back from Italy. It was in Italy that Böcklin began to add symbols into his paintings in order to suggest ideas.  The interesting thing about Symbolism in art is that we can each come to our own conclusions about what we see in a painting and unless the artist has spoken about the painting then we have as much right to postulate about an artist’s reasoning behind their work as the next person.  So having looked at the work, what do you make of it?  Let me make a few suggestions about what I think may have been in Böcklin’s mind when he put brush to canvas.

Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)
Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

We can see that Arnold has portrayed himself with painting brush in one hand whilst the thumb of his other hand is hooked through the hole in the palette securing a piece of cloth.  However what is more interesting is the inclusion of the skeleton playing the fiddle in the background.   The question I pose is – what was Böcklin thinking about when he decided to include the skeleton?    We know that most paintings, which include a skull or skeleton, are Vanitas paintings.  A vanitas painting contains an object or a collection of objects which symbolise the inevitability of death and the transience of life.  Such paintings urge the viewer to consider mortality and to repent !  So, Böcklin’s inclusion of a skeleton is a reminder to him that he cannot take life for granted and that there is a very fine line between life and death.

Look at the juxtaposition of the artist and the skeleton.   Look how the skeleton appears to be whispering something in Böcklin’s ear and the artist in the painting turns his head slightly and leans back to listen.   He is staring out of the painting, but not at us.  He is staring out but his full attention is on what the skeleton is saying.   Maybe the skeleton is telling the artist something about his future?  Look also at the fiddle that the skeleton is playing.  It has only one string left.  Why paint the fiddle with just one string?   Is this something to do with the length of time Böcklin has on this earth?  Is it that at birth the violin had all four strings but, as time progressed, string after string broke and so, at the time of death, there are no strings?

The painting can now be seen at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)
Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)

Other subjects that appeared in Böcklin’s paintings during his last period of creativity were the Naiads and Nereids or sea and water nymphs often referred to as female spirits of sea waters.  The next painting I am showcasing is entitled Naiads at Play which Böcklin completed around 1862 and now hangs in the Kunstmuseum Basel.  Böcklin’s biographer, Henri Mendelssohn described the painting, writing:

“…It fairly bubbles over with fun and merriment.  The scene represents a rock in the ocean, over which the waves dash in foam, tossing white spray high into the air.  Clinging fast to the wet rock face are the gleaming forms of naiads, their tails shining like jewels in the seething waters, as the waves dash, one on top of another, so do the creatures of the sea chase each other in their frolic, darting here and diving there, and tumbling heels over head from the rock into the ocean beneath, whose roar almost drowns their shrill laughter.  All is life and movement.  The sputtering triton and the luckless baby, holding in his convulsive clasp the prize he has captured, a little fish, rank among the inimitable creations of Böcklin’s art…”

Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac, a French Symbolist poet and art collector of the time, described Böcklin’s work, writing:

“…”This is the most astonishing of all Böcklin’s representations of the sea. The water gleams with hues as violent as those reflected by the Faraglioni, the red rocks which, seen from Capri, mirror their purple shadows in the blue waves. One of the naiads, with her back turned to us, seems to set the water on fire with the brilliancy of her orange-coloured hair, while all the naiads’ tails, wet and glistening, glow with the gorgeous hues of butterflies’ wings or the petals of brilliant flowers…”

Looking at the work one can understand the comments.  It is as if you were there, feeling the energy and almost feeling the spray on your face.  From this mythical subject, Böcklin has almost turned it into reality, such was his skill.

Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)
Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)

Another painting by the Swiss symbolist Böcklin which illustrates his fascination with nightmares, the plague and death was one he completed in 1898 entitled Plague.  It is a tempera on wood painting, which is now hanging in the Kunstmuseum Basel.   In the painting the setting is the street of a medieval town and we see the grim-faced Death, scythe in hand, riding a winged creature, which spews out miasma.  The colours Böcklin used in this painting are black and dull browns for the clothes of many of the inhabitants who desperately throw themselves out of the path of Death and shades of pale green which is often associated with death and putrefaction.  The one detail which is devoid of drab colours is that of the clothes worn by the woman in the foreground who lies across the body of the woman who has suffered at the hands of Death.  Her gold-embroidered red cloak signifies that she comes from a wealthy household and the painting reinforces the fact that Death takes both rich and poor.  The plague had ravished Europe throughout the 14th to 17th centuries.  It knew no boundaries of class or wealth.

Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)
Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)

Around 1874 Böcklin completed a painting entitled Roger and Angelica.  It can now be seen in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The scene, Roger rescuing of Angelica, is based on the 1532 epic romantic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludivico Ariosto, which is all about the conflict between the Christians and the Saracens.  The painting depicts the main character, Ruggerio (Roger), a Saracen warrior, coming to the rescue of Angelica, the daughter of a king of Cathay.  She is chained to a rock on the shoreline and is about to be killed by the sea monster, the giant turquoise orc, which has wrapped itself around the helpless Angelica.  In the background we see Roger arriving astride his horse.  The battle with the orc is ended when Roger dazzles the sea monster with his shield allowing him the chance to place a magic ring on the finger of Angelica which protects her whilst he undoes the bonds which were tying her to the tree.

Grave of Arnold BöcklinArnold Böcklin moved around Europe, living in Munich, Florence and the small Swiss town of Hottingen which was close to Zurich but from 1892 onwards he settled down near Florence in the town of  San Domenico.  To mark his seventieth birthday a retrospective of his work was held in Basel, Berlin and Hamburg.  Böcklin died of tuberculosis, aged 73, in Fiesole, a small town northeast of Florence, in January 1902 and is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in southern Florence.

In my next blog I will be looking at the work of an artist who was known as the king of the cats as many of his paintings had an obligatory cat in the depiction.  However he was probably more remembered by his erotic paintings which featured pre pubescent girls in all manner of provocative poses.  In this day and age many of his works would struggle to be exhibited because of the age of his models.

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.

Maria Luise Katharina Breslau

Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)
Self portrait by Louise Breslau (1891)

In my recent blogs looking at the life of Marie Bashkirtseff, I talked about the time she spent studying art at the Académie Julian in Paris and her rivalry with her fellow artist Louise Breslau.  Despite the wealthy lifestyle of Bashkirtseff she was still constantly jealous of Breslau, who she perceived as her rival at the academy.  She was also very jealous of Breslau’s friendship with contemporary artists such as Edgar Degas.  So today, I thought I should dedicate this blog to her rival, and look at the life and works of the German-born artist, Louise Breslau.

Two young girls sitting on a banquette by Louise Breslau (1896)
Two young girls sitting on a banquette by Louise Breslau (1896)

Maria Luise Katharina Breslau, who would later be known simply as Louise Catherine Breslau,  was born in Munich in December 1856 but spent much of her early life in Zurich. She was born into a prosperous middle-class family.   Louise had three younger sisters Marie-Henrietta, Emma and Bernadette.  Her father was an eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist and in 1858 he and his family moved to Zurich where he took up a position as head physician in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University Hospital of Zurich.

Louise suffered badly from asthma when she was young and was often confined to her bed and it was due to this enforced confinement, that to pass the time and counter loneliness, she immersed herself in reading and also developed a love of sketching.

La fille à l'orange by Louise Breslau (1897)
La fille à l’orange by Louise Breslau (1897)

In 1866, When Louise was nine years old, her father died of staph infection which he contracted during the execution of a postmortem examination. Louise, even though still very young, was tasked with helping her mother to bring up her three younger sisters.  When her health worsened, she spent some time in a convent near to Lake Constance where with its warmer climate it was hoped that her health would improve.   It was during her stay at the convent that she became more interested in art and she continued to sketch and paint during her teenage years.  Her love of art and her artistic ability became apparent to her mother who persuaded Louise to attend the drawing classes of the local Swiss portrait painter, Eduard Pfyffer.  She excelled under his tuition but after a while she believed that she had learnt all she could from Pfyffer and she wanted her art to be more than just a pleasing hobby.  All young ladies of a certain class, besides learning about domestic skills, were also encouraged to be able to play a musical instrument and be able to paint or sketch.   However, Louise wanted art not to be just a pleasant pastime, she wanted to become a professional artist and to achieve this she knew she had to leave Switzerland, move to the European capital of art, Paris, and enrol at a specialist art academy.   In 1876 she went to Paris but like many other female artists who wanted the best art training that Paris could offer, she was disappointed with the ruling of the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts that only male artists would be allowed to enter their hallowed establishment.  This sexist ruling did not change until 1897.  So, like Bashkirtseff, she enrolled at the Académie Julian who catered for aspiring female painters.

Children reading by Louise Breslau
Children reading by Louise Breslau

Her fellow students at the Académie Julian included the Ukrainian artist, Marie Bashkirtseff, Madeleine Zillhardt, the French painter, Sophie Schäppi who, like Louise, had come to Paris from Switzerland and the Irish painter, Sarah Purser.  Louise excelled at the academy and was looked upon by her tutors as one of their best students and this fact did not lie well with Marie Bashkirtseff who was inordinately jealous of her fellow student. In 1879, Louise Breslau, Sophie Schäppi and the singer Maria Fuller moved into a large apartment in the Avenue des Thermes and that same year Breslau had her painting entitled Tout passé accepted at the Paris Salon.  This was a great achievement not only for Louise but also for the female atelier of Académie Julian.

Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)
Les amies by Louise Breslau (1881)

Two years later, in 1881, she received an honourable mention at that year’s Salon for her triple portrait entitled, Les amies (Portrait of Friends).  In it we see her friends Maria Feller on the left, Sophie Schäppi in the centre and Louise on the right, with a white dog sitting on top of the scarlet tablecloth.  It is a painting in which we see the three females in a reflective mood.  The painting is now housed in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  Louise Breslau was now acknowledged as an up-and-coming artist.  She opened her own studio and soon started to receive numerous commissions for her work from the wealthy of Paris society.

Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)
Le thé à cinq heures by Louise Breslau (1883)

In 1883 she was commissioned by the owner of the French newspaper Le Figaro to paint a portrait of his daughter.   She completed the commission and exhibited the painting entitled Isabelle de Rodays at the 1883 Salon.  She also exhibited another of her works, Five O’clock Tea at that year’s Salon and this can now be found at the Berne Kunstmuseum.

Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)
Chez soi by Louise Breslau (1885)

In 1885 Louis Breslau completed another great work entitled Chez Soi which is a portrayal of her mother and sister in an interior setting.  The dog sits at the feet of her mother and this genre piece exudes an air of silent contemplation.  The painting resides in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Contre Jour (Louise Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt) by Louise Breslau
Contre Jour (Louise Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt) by Louise Breslau

The friendship between Breslau and Madeleine Zillhardt would last a lifetime and she would appear in many of her paintings.  After a brief affair in 1886 with the sculptor Jean Carriès, whom she met through Jules Breton, Louise Breslau chose to share her life with Madeleine Zillhardt and in 1902 the two women moved to a studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine where they set up home.

Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau
Jean Carries in his Atelier by Louise Breslau

She eventually became the third woman artist, and the first foreign woman artist to be bestowed France’s Legion of Honour award.  During World War I Breslau, although by this time a naturalised Swiss citizen, and Zillhardt, remained at their home at Neuilly. Breslau showed her patriotism towards her new country, France, by drawing numerous portraits of French soldiers and nurses on their way to the Front. Louise was sixty-two years of age when the war ended and she began to withdraw from public view and was contented to stay at home and sit in her garden, painting flowers but she still loved to entertain her friends.

Louise Catherine Breslau died in May 1927, aged 70 after suffering from a long and debilitating illness.   Most of her estate went to her good friend and long-time companion Madeleine Zillhardt.  As per her wishes Louise Breslau’s body was taken to the small Swiss town of Baden where she was buried next to her mother.

Unlike Bashkirtseff, who died at the age of 25, Breslau had many years to forge her artistic reputation.  Bashkirtseff sadly knew, when she was told that she was dying, that she would never have the time to be able to build up such an artistic reputation as Breslau but of course Bashkirtseff will always be remembered for her diaries.  The works of art of Louise Breslau were very popular when she was alive but sadly, after she died, she was almost forgotten.

Silence by Henry Fuseli

Silence by Henry Fuseli (1800)

As you know, I like paintings which have some kind of symbolism or ones which lead art historians to write about their interpretations of what is before us.  It is always interesting to witness how art historians’ views sometimes differ with regards how they interpret what an artist has depicted.  It also gives one an opportunity to air one’s own views about the symbolism and how we want to interpret what we see.   I want you to look carefully at today’s featured painting and work out in your own mind what you are witnessing.  Later, after looking at the life of the artist, I will pose some questions which you may wish to deliberate on and then I will tell you what I see and let us see how close we come together with our interpretations of this beautiful and haunting painting.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is by Henry Fuseli and is simply entitled Silence.  He completed the work in 1800 and it is now housed in the Kunsthaus in Zurich.  Fuseli was born in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1741 and was the second of eighteen children, of which only five survived to adulthood.   His father was Johann Caspar Füssli, a portrait and landscape painter and later a city clerk.  He was also a part-time writer and was author of the art history book entitled Lives of the Helvetic Painters. Henry’s mother was Anna Elisabeth Füssli (née Waser).  His mother and father wanted Henry to study for the church, and after some home tutoring sent him to the Caroline College of Zurich, where he received a first-class classical education, studying literature, aesthetics, Greek and Latin. It was during his time at this college that he met and became great friends with Johann Kaspar Lavater, who would become a well-known Swiss poet.  In 1761, aged twenty, he was ordained into the church as a Zwinglian minister.  The following year, 1762, Fuseli and his friend Lavater discovered the corrupt ways of a local magistrate and politician Felix Grebel and denounced him publicly.  The magistrate was found guilty and had to make financial reparations, which angered him and his followers, so much so that in 1763 Fuseli had to flee the country and go to Prussia to avoid retribution.

After spending a short time in Berlin, Fussli who by now was an accomplished linguist,  moved to London where he was employed as a translator, translating French, German and Italian books into English. He spent a lot of his leisure time sketching and writing but had little success in getting any of his writings published.  Whilst in London he got to know the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and on showing the English artist some of his sketches, he was encouraged to devote more of his time on his art and less time trying to become an author, so in 1768 Henry Fussli took Reynolds’ advice and decided to become an artist.

In 1770, at the age of twenty nine, Füssli went along the well-trodden path taken by artists and would-be artists – an artistic pilgrimage to Italy and he remained in that country for eight years.  Füssli was a self-taught artist and whilst in Italy copied many of the works of the Renaissance Masters and spent much time in the Sistine Chapel copying the frescoes of Michelangelo.  It was also his stay in Rome that afforded him multiple sexual forays and these experiences no doubt were the reason behind some of his erotic drawings.  During his eight year sojourn In Italy he also changed his surname to the more Italian-sounding “Fuseli” which he must have believed had a more artistic ring to it. 

In 1779 he returned to Zurich and fell in love.  The woman he loved was the niece of his old friend from the Caroline College, Felix Lavater.  Unfortunately for Fuseli, his love for Anna Landolt vom Rechs was not reciprocated.  One of Henry Fuseli’s most famous paintings, The Nightmare, which I featured in My Daily Art Display (August 8th) is based on an erotic dream he had of this “love of his life”.  Fuseli left Zurich heartbroken and returned to London.  In London, Fuseli exhibited many of his history paintings at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1786 and by so doing established a reputation in this important genre. He also came into contact once again with Joshua Reynolds, the man who almost twenty years earlier advised him to become an artist.  Reynolds was now the president of the Royal Academy.

William Blake, the English poet and artist met Fuseli around 1787 and they became close friends, with Blake engraving occasional works for Fuseli.   In that same year, Fuseli was elected associate of the Royal Academy and in 1788 he married Sophia Rawlins, a woman who was eighteen years his junior.  It was also around this period of his life that Fuseli became acquainted with the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (her daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein).  She was besotted with Fuseli and even went as far as approaching Fuseli’s young wife’s to share the man between them. Needless to say Fuseli’s wife would have nothing to do with this plan. 

Fuseli was elevated to Royal Academician in 1790 and what was strange about this change of status was that his one-time mentor Reynolds tried unsuccessfully to oppose the appointment.   In 1799 he became Royal Academy professor of painting.   In 1816 Fuseli, Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Flaxman were elected honorary academicians of the Accademia di San Luca at Rome.   Henry Fuseli died at the home of the countess of Guilford at Surrey in 1825, aged 84 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.   Although Fuseli’s reputation is based on his works of art he should also be remembered for his writings on art and the fact that he was a formidable art historian.

So by now you have had time to study the featured painting and maybe you have come to a conclusion of what it all about.  Let me therefore pose some theories and at the same time question you on what you have concluded.  This painting is totally devoid of symbolism and it demands your own determination of what it is all about.  It is enigmatic and frustratingly we do not know what it is all about.  We see a figure, seated cross-legged in an indeterminate place, surrounded by gloom.  There is nothing in the depiction of the background to help us fathom out the mystery.   Is it a man or is it a woman?  Long hair and a shift-like dress, so it must be female or must it be so?  The hands are feminine but maybe the arms, which look quite muscular, are masculine.  For the time being let us presume it is a long-haired female.  Her head is downcast, almost hunched into her shoulders.  She is of an indeterminate age and there is ambivalence about the way she is dressed.  But what of her mood?   What is the state of her mind?  The problem for us when we want to decide the mood of the person is that we can neither see her face nor her facial expression.  One’s face is who one is.  Maybe more importantly, we cannot see her eyes – the windows to her soul.  We cannot therefore try and read her mind.  We have to build up our perception of her by looking at her posture.  As we cannot see her facial expression, can we glean anything by studying the body language?  Are we looking at somebody who is just simply relaxing or are we looking at somebody who has come to the end of her tether and slumps before us almost drained of life?  If I asked you to describe her posture in one word, what would it be?  Despair? Exhaustion?, Acceptance? Resignation?

I don’t have the answers.  Nobody but the artist knows what it is all about.  Why did he give the painting the title Silence?  We can all theorise but nobody can be categorical about the correctness of their theories.  I will leave you with this haunting painting and let you decide.

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.