Swiss Painter and Printmaker
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.
- 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.
Biography of Arnold Böcklin
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.
Important Art by Arnold Böcklin
In this early, idiosyncratic self-portrait, the artist engages the viewer's gaze almost awkwardly, pausing from his work as if half-sensing the animated skeleton playing the violin behind his left shoulder. The painting demonstrates the gothic humor that would become synonymous with Böcklin's oeuvre, while also suggesting some unexpected creative sources, perhaps especially the Realist painting of mid-nineteenth-century France.
Combining a Romantic, gothic theme with a studied informality of presentation which is especially evident in the artist's posture and clothing - perhaps influenced by the Barbizon painters whom Böcklin had admired in his youth - Böcklin offers us a reworking of the memento mori genre popular since the Northern Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger's extraordinary The Ambassadors (1533), and the Portrait of Sir Brian Tuke (1827) also attributed to Holbein, are likely influences; indeed, the latter was on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich in the early 1870s, when Böcklin was based in the city. We can also posit a connection to the medieval tradition of the danse macabre, often depicted in woodcuts, showing processions of figures led by dancing skeletons. The piece thus reveals the eclecticism of Böcklin's influences, a trait notable throughout his career.
This painting exerted a significant influence on many subsequent modern artists, notably the German Expressionist painter Lovis Corinth, who created a striking Self-Portrait with Skeleton of his own in 1896. Böcklin's work also inspired the late-romantic composer Gustav Mahler, who, according to his widow Alma, inserted a violin solo on an improperly tuned violin into his Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900) after seeing the painting.
Böcklin completed this painting in Munich, where he was based for a time in the early 1870s, working partly in collaboration with his friend, the society painter Franz von Lenbach. Lenbach was then employed by the poet and art collector Adolf Friedrich von Schack, who became a major patron of Böcklin's throughout his career. The work is an explicit homage to Michelangelo's unfinished 1492 marble relief Battle of the Centaurs, but adapts the style of the piece in various ways, responding to various subsequent artistic genres. This is one of many works created by Böcklin which rework the classical mythical tropes of Renaissance Art.
Schack's art collection consisted mainly of copies of Old Masters, as well as original works by living German artists, all hung together in a private gallery. While many artists of Böcklin's era copied from the Old Masters, partly to make a living from collectors such as Shack, Böcklin took a typically frivolous approach to the task, combining a variety of painting traditions in his execution of this work. The melodramatic posturing of the centaurs, for example, seems to owe something to Romantic painting in the tradition of Delacroix, as well as the Baroque influences Böcklin had imbibed in Rome. The warmth of color is reminiscent of German Romantic landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich.
Battle of the Centaurs was wildly popular, selling for 6,750 francs in 1876. It was also widely exhibited, and much loved by the German public. The grandeur of the theme and mood perhaps spoke to the German nationalism of the late nineteenth century; one write-up in a contemporary magazine sums up the excitement which the painting aroused in its viewers: "high in a forbidding rocky wilderness, where heaven and earth impinge and clouds hang heavy over cliffs bare of vegetation, evidently in an era when the elemental forces still struggled wildly with one another and the earth was still held in continuous transformation by the forces of fire and water, we see living creatures of this terrible stormy period of our planet's youth who stand in amazing conformance with the Creation emerging from this Chaos."
Arnold Böcklin painted five versions of Isle of the Dead between 1880 and 1886. This, the third of them, was created for the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt, who also coined the title for the sequence. Executed in a Romantic style reminiscent of both Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite painting, it shows two figures, an oarsman and a woman dressed in white, approaching an island in a small rowing boat. The shape at the front of the boat is generally understood to be a coffin, while the island itself is dominated by a grove of cypress trees, with a number of crypt doorways cut into the rock. Isle of the Dead was painted in Florence, and one source for the image was the English Cemetery in that city, located close to where Böcklin buried one of his many children who died in infancy.
The power of this image lies in its thematic and stylistic ambiguity. The source for the scene may be classical - the oarsman is often interpreted as Charon, ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology, transporting his passengers across the River Styx into the underworld - but various real-life models for the island have been suggested, besides the English Cemetery, including St. George Island in Montenegro. The dramatic coloring, and the grandeur of the natural scene, owes much to German Romantic landscape painting, though we can also sense an affinity with the work of the British Pre-Raphaelites, who were much concerned with Arthurian legend, and thus with the mythical Isle of Avalon, depicted in Edward Burn-Jones monumental work The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-98).
Like Battle of the Centaurs, this painting achieved enormous fame in late-nineteenth-century Germany, finding its way into many bourgeois living rooms, and also inspiring the late-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff's 1908 work Isle of the Dead. With its emphasis on the beauty of nature and the honor of death, it is not surprising that the painting also spoke to German nationalism. Its most infamous owner was Adolf Hitler, who purchased it in 1933, later hanging it in Albert Speer's new Reich Chancellery. However, the image's enigmatic appeal has outlasted the politics for which it was coopted, and the painting continues to be popular in post-unification Germany.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Arnold Böcklin
- Arnold Böcklin, 1827-1901By Katharina Schmidt
- BöcklinBy Hans Dollinger
- The German Expressionists: A Generation in RevoltBy Bernard S. Myers
- Comic Grotesque: Wit and Mockery in German Art, 1870-1940Our PickBy Pamela Kort
- The Visual Arts in Germany, 1890-1937: Utopia and DespairOur PickBy Shearer West
- Böcklin's vision continues to hauntBy Jonathan Jones
- Great Works: The Isle of the Dead (1880) Arnold BöcklinOur PickBy Tom Lubbock
- Music; A Visual Requiem That Inspired RachmaninoffBy Matthew Gurewitsch
- Those Witty, Mocking GermansBy Roberta Smith
- 'You'll Laugh, You'll Cry': Comic Grotesque recalls an era of German satire with an outrageous, vicious biteBy Mark Stevens