Isle of the Dead

Isle of the Dead (German: Die Toteninsel) is the best known painting of Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). Prints of the work were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century. Freud, Lenin, and Clemenceau all had prints of it in their offices. Böcklin produced several different versions of the mysterious painting between 1880 and 1886. The fifth version of is currently lost; it may have disappeared or been destroyed during the World Wars.

“Böcklin … was an energetic figure devoid of the languid melancholy of ’decadence’. Italy’s light and aura of antiquity were decisive in his early development; his paintings quickly came to be populated with mythological figures, with centaurs and naiads. Not until his fiftieth year did he begin to paint the powerfully atmospheric works associated with his name today.

“Among the most famous of these is the painting known as The Isle of the Dead (1880), which Böcklin himself entitled ‘a tranquil place’. It was clearly important to him; he made five different versions of the composition. The new title was suggested by the white-draped coffin on the boat, the funerary presence of the cypresses, and the overwhelming impression of immobility and silence. The white figure vividly lit by a setting sun is contrasted with the dark, vertical forms of the trees, impervious to the slanting rays of the sun. Like a dream, the painting condenses a number of contradictory sensations and emotions.

“Böcklin’s choice of imagery is not coincidental. A young widow had asked him for an ’image to dream by’, and the funereal serenity perhaps echoes something of the artist’s own emotions about death. At the age of twenty-five, during one of his stays in Rome, he had married the daughter of a pontifical guard who bore him eleven children between 1855 and 1876; five of them died in infancy, and the Böcklin family was twice (in 1855 and 1873) forced to flee cholera epidemics.

“Böcklin’s art reveals a robust temperament. He showed no reticence towards the new technologies then sweeping the continent. He devoted time to the invention of a flying machine, negotiating with businessmen for its manufacture. His Germanic feeling for nature was expressed, in canonic Romantic fashion, in such paintings as The Sacred Wood (1882), but its most striking expression is The Silence of the Forest (1885) in which a bizarre unicorn, part cow, part camel, emerges from a forest, bearing an equally enigmatic woman on its back.”

—from Symbolism, a Taschen art book by Michael Gibson.


Arnold Böcklin was a symbolist Swiss painter.