Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.

I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) [1883]

This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.

Arnold Böcklin painted five versions of the same motif and the version presented above is the third one in the series. The painting evokes so much eeriness and peculiar otherworldliness that it has been the subject of music records, books and even inspired a film – Isle of the Dead [1945], starring the incomparable Boris Karloff (Frankenstein [1931]) in the leading role. As for real-life inspiration, while some said that the artist was inspired by the Pontikonisi island near Corfu, Greece, others pointed out the resemblance of the island in the painting to the medieval castle of Aragonese in the Gulf of Naples, Italy. The Isle of the Dead painting is currently housed in the National Gallery in Berlin.

II. The Chapel [1898]

This painting shows a chapel in ruins during a violent storm. Böcklin used light cleverly here to illuminate the insides of the chapel in ruins. My guess is that it is precisely the clever interplay between the darkness and the light in this painting that gives it its own peculiar, unsettling quality. Here, there is also that popular Romanticism theme of nature running its course as once beautiful architecture is in ruins. The waves are hard at work destroying what has been left of one undoubtedly great architectural beauty – the sacred place of worship. One other curious thing about this painting is that, although we see much decay and gloominess, there are also surprising details to be found that hint at love and hope – there are white doves to be seen on one of chapel’s windows (symbolising hope) and red flowers are scattered on the chapel steps (that can symbolise love).

III. Isle of Life [1888]

This painting was probably created as a contrast to the painting “Isle of the Dead”. If “Isle of the Dead” is sombre, with few people in sight, “Isle of Life” is bursting with life. In contrast to the rocky “fortress”, we find here blue skies, abandoned and diverse vegetation, people rejoicing in the background and white swans swimming in clear waters (swans symbolising the partnership with the spiritual world, as well as love and knowledge beyond that of human understanding). The painting evokes feelings of joy, tranquillity and happiness, but, probably at the expense of embracing dark spiritual forces, as seen by the mermaid having her arms around the disturbing-looking merman and by the sinister shadowy couple that can just be seen beyond the hill of the island. The painting is housed in the Fine Arts Museum in Basel, Switzerland.


15 thoughts on “Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

  1. I’ve seen Isle of the Dead before, not sure it is the same version, though. It’s amazing how a painting can create such an atmosphere and evoke such strong feelings. Generally, I enjoy symbolic paintings, sometimes I can get lost for ages just staring at them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As far as I know he was very influential in Europe, among his contemporaries in particular and during certain other periods, but has not really been much talked about in the last forty or fifty years or so. It shouldn’t be so because his work is very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! I wonder what these stories could be. But then again I think just part of their appeal is that we remain in the dark as to what is really going on there – that sense of mystery and unknowability also has a certain charm 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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