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.
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.
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.
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.