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Arnold Böcklin

Swiss Painter and Printmaker

Arnold Böcklin Photo
Movements and Styles: Romanticism, Symbolism

Born: October 16, 1827 - Basel, Switzerland

Died: January 16, 1901 - Fiesole, Italy

"To be Greeks! Us? Why were the Greeks Greeks? Because they created what they saw, as seemed right to them. (The ancients did not want to make antiquity, as far as I know - only we want to do that) ... The fresh water of life is what we want, and that is ever flowing for us, as it was for the Greeks. We will only be Greek when we grasp it in our own way."

Arnold Bocklin Signature

Summary of Arnold Böcklin

Arnold Böcklin is unusual amongst modern artists in that he was never comfortable with being described as one. While other painters of his era experimented with ever more pronounced forms of abstraction and stylistic experiment, turning their back on the classical and historical subject-matter of the past, Böcklin immersed himself in the history of painting from the Renaissance onwards, drawn to mythological imagery, and to all that was dramatic and extravagant. The resultant body of work combines a whole range of painterly traditions with a stylistic and thematic eclecticism which we might call kitsch. His paintings certainly had the mass popular appeal sometimes associated with that term. But they also became a touchstone for many modern artists, particularly those interested in combining naturalistic representation with bizarre subject-matter.

Key Ideas

Arnold Böcklin was perhaps the most important Northern-European painter attached to the Symbolist movement, whose primarily bases were in France, Belgium, and Russia. While other painters of that school such as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon endowed their allegorical works with a brooding intensity, Böcklin often reworked images from classical myth with a ribald humor, though with macabre undercurrents: an odd mixture of the comic and the nightmarish which made his work popular with Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí.
Böcklin brought an unusually wide variety of influences to bear on his work. Inspired in his youth by the Romantic landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and other Northern-European artists, he flirted with a French Realist style in the 1850s before becoming enamored of the Renaissance tradition, especially the stylistic excesses and melodrama of the Baroque. He combined these influences with an unapologetic Catholicism and whimsical irony which is curiously predictive of the postmodern artistic culture of the late-20th century.
Böcklin was one of the most successful modern artists of the late nineteenth century in terms of his popularity with the general public, taking advantage of a new market for prints and reproductions of paintings in Germany around that time. Versions of works such as Isle of the Dead and Battle of the Centaurs found their way into middle-class living rooms across the country, seeming to speak to a new German nationalism with their strong sense of melodrama and bombast. Böcklin was thus one of the first modern artists to recognize and operate successfully within a mass market.
Arnold Böcklin Photo

Arnold Böcklin was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1827 to Christian Frederick Böcklin and Ursula Lippe, named after a character from Friedrich Schiller's 1804 play William Tell. Both of Böcklin's parents were from Northern Switzerland, and his father was a silk trader, an itinerant occupation which perhaps influenced Böcklin's later interest in travel. Böcklin left Switzerland at an early age, studying painting at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art from 1845 to 1847 under the tutelage of the landscape painter Johann Wilhelm Schirmer. Böcklin also studied with the Romantic painter Carl Friedrich Lessing, and was introduced to the work of the Nazarene movement. The coexistence of Neoclassical, Romantic, and Nazarene traditions at Düsseldorf played into Böcklin's own stylistic eclecticism. While at Düsseldorf, he created several paintings of the Swiss Alps, influenced by his Academy tutors and by artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, using dramatic effects of shadow and color to bring out the expressive character of the landscape.

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