Arnold Böcklin – The Isle of the Dead III (1883)

At the beginning of the 20th century you could find a reproduction of The Isle of the Dead in almost every middle class household in Germany. Sigmund Freud certainly had one at his office. Even the Russians weren’t immune. Lenin was fascinated by it. After seeing a black-and-white reproduction of the artwork, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem in A minor with an eponymous title. The haunting Dies Irae theme, taken from a 13th century Latin plainchant, ripples eerily throughout the composition and reminds us of death’s ominous presence. We certainly couldn’t have had a better soundtrack for this art piece.

Arnold Böcklin - The Isle of the Dead III (1883)
Arnold Böcklin – The Isle of the Dead III (1883), oil on wood, Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin | zoom in here

In total, Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin completed five versions of this painting, of which four remain today. The first two are gloomier, darker and almost identical, capturing the dusk, while the third one (featured here) takes place during daylight. In this one, what we lose in mood, we gain in detail. We can see a mysterious islet-fortress amidst a calm sea, with rocky cliffs encircling tall, dark, cypress trees. The water, unnervingly still, reflects an overcast sky and the rock formations. Glimpses of motion are suggested by the barely waving tips of the trees and the moving clouds. We’re looking at an other-worldly island of death, made to appear timeless by the ruins that embrace this eerie landscape. Carved in stone are windows and sepulcher portals. A boat, helmed by an oarsman, is headed towards the island, ferrying a white-clad passenger with the back turned towards us, amplifying the mystery. In front of the passenger can be seen a coffin draped with a white sheet. It’s fascinating to read the various interpretations that this boat has spurred, but before we get to that, we need to go back in time.


Arnold Bocklin - The Isle of the Dead II (1880)
Arnold Böcklin – The Isle of the Dead II (1880), oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art | zoom in here

According to art historian Heinrich Alfred Schmid, in 1880 the Swiss artist was visited in Florence by Marie Berna, a widow who was soon to remarry and receive the title of Countess of Oriola. Her first husband, German financier Georg von Berna, had passed away shortly after they got married, in 1865. At the time, Böcklin was working on a commission for art collector Alexander Günther. Impressed with the dreamlike quality of the artwork, Berna immediately asked him for a landscape over which one could dream to honor her late husband. However, the widow had one specific request: for Böcklin to add a draped coffin and a shrouded female figure beside the solitary oarsman. And so he did.

Given the other-worldly, timeless mystery that these paintings carry, it’s no surprise that many observers have drawn parallels between the artwork and Greek mythology, specifically  the crossing of the Styx by Charon, whose duty was to ferry souls to the underworld. The presence of the shrouded female figure has raised a lot of questions. It could be Marie Berna, accompanying her husband’s coffin, a ghost or death itself, ferrying a corpse in the afterlife.

Ironically enough, the story of this painting started and came full circle in Ischia, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, close to the city of Naples. Böcklin had spent the autumn of 1879 there, deeply impressed by the Mediterranean landscape. There, the Aragonese Castle, a medieval fortification located on a rocky islet, is said to have been the inspiration for The Isle of the Dead. Almost a year later, when the artist had already completed the first two versions, he returned to Ischia, seeking a break from his rheumatism and lingering depression under the gleaming sun of the most beautiful summer sky and in the blue waves of the gulf. Böcklin, who had battled depression throughout his hard stricken life, had reached such a low point that he was seriously considering suicide.

And yet, he went on to live for another eleven years, enjoying immense popularity thanks to the painting that actually precipitated his nervous breakdown. Three years prior to his death, he even depicted a bucolic celebration in The Island of Life.


Arnold Böcklin - The Island of Life (1888)
Arnold Böcklin – The Island of Life (1888) | zoom in here

Perhaps a greater irony is that artists don’t get to pick their audiences. In 1933 Adolf Hitler bought the third version of The Isle of the Dead. It was yet another indication of how notorious the painting had become. Just like death, art exerts its power indiscriminately.

17 thoughts on “Arnold Böcklin – The Isle of the Dead III (1883)

  1. I had not come across this work before. I can see why it was popular popular, its both beautiful and thought-provoking. The island of life, isn’t half as atmospheric of his isle of death (all version).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahh, what a amazing story and painting. You are poet when you describe a painting plus I had the Rachmaninoff score playing in the background, so all the better.
    Just this morning I was thinking about this book The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and i always associated the above painting with that book,( maybe I had mistaken this to be the book cover, turns out actually there was write up linking the both , and it had settled into my subconscious )

    Coming back to the painting itself, how captivating, eerie, haunting and other worldly. Truly the artist did deliver well upon , “a landscape over which one could dream” . I will have to get a reproduction of it for my room and then dream something up like Rachmaninoff .

    Great, great share, Gabriela . Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such a wonderful comment, Rahul! It’s always a pleasure to witness how impacted you are by the art featured here. There is a freshness and sincerity in how you experience it. Wholeheartedly, with the wonder of a child.

      How ironic that you should praise my description! I have read many reviews for the painting and my phrasing sounds very plain and clunky in comparison. That’s definitely something I plan to work on in the future. There was one metaphor I came across that I absolutely loved…. “the cypress trees soar like the fingers of a prophet”. Now that’s poetry!

      I haven’t read any Thomas Mann, actually, though I’ve grown more interested in German literature lately. Thank you, I’ll add it to my shortlist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “the cypress trees soar like the fingers of a prophet” , ahh.. that is indeed something.
        Thank you for all the praise in your words.
        But this painting indeed is special. Also made me think of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not a fan of Bergman at all, but I see what you mean. There’s also this song, The Ferryman by Cale Hawkins, which I really like. But Rachmaninoff does a great job at capturing the dark solemnity of the painting.

          Liked by 1 person

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