I am a fan of the Symbolist painters from around the end of the 19th century, artists like Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon. and many others created incredible works that were just a little beyond reality but beautiful and with a presence that lingered with the viewer. There are many great examples but one of those paintings with a lingering effect is the Isle of the Dead from Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901).
Depicting an island where the bodies of the dead were interred, it is a powerful and somber image. Several locations are reputed to be the inspiration for this painting, including several tiny Mediterranean islands with similar cypress trees and chapels. Some believe it to be based on a cemetery in Florence, Italy near the artist’s studio where his infant daughter was buried.
Böcklin lost 8 of his 14 children to death, so the concept of death was something that was always near. This was not that uncommon in that time. Most families lost one or more children in early childhood and death was an accepted part of this world. During this time, at the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t unusual for a family to take portraits of their loved ones soon after they died.
Böcklin painted five versions of this instantly popular work for collectors. One version, the third, was bought by Adolf Hitler in 1933 and now hangs in the National Gallery in Berlin. Another, the fourth, was destroyed by a bombing raid in World War II and only exists now as a black and white photograph.
This painting had something with which people deeply identified and it was the new popularity of mass produced lithographic prints in the time that gave it staying power. It was said that one couldn’t enter a Berlin home at the turn of the century without coming across a print of the painting on the wall. This image has maintained quite a bit of its following through the years, even having websites dedicated to it.
As I said, it is a powerful image that lingers in your mind long after you see it. I know it does for me. It has definitely been a huge influence on a number of painters and other artists.
In 1888, Böcklin created a painting, Isle of Life (see below), that he considered the converse image to his now famous Isle of the Dead. It has living people, animals, greenery and a generally more upbeat appearance. But it certainly doesn’t come close to the soul jolting impact of its antithesis.
But you be the judge…