Arnold Böcklin - Biography and Legacy
Swiss Painter and Printmaker
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.
1848 marked a critical year in Arnold Böcklin's artistic development, as Schirmer sent him to Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris to continue his training. During his travels, Böcklin was especially inspired by the Romantic artists such as Eugène Delacroix, and by Realist painters of the Barbizon School, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; he was also captivated by the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. Some of Böcklin's work from this period shows a turn towards Realism, while, according to Susanne Marchand, his landscapes were inspired by his tutors Schirmer and Lessing, and by the Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame. On a visit to Geneva, however, Böcklin found Calame's studio confining. He was also scarred by his experiences in Paris in 1848. While many of his contemporaries were moved by the February Revolution, Böcklin was horrified by the bloodshed of the June Days, spending much time watching the transportation of prisoners to execution from his small apartment window. Böcklin returned home from France to Basel, and during 1848-49 served his mandatory time in the Swiss Army. By 1850, however, finding the atmosphere of his home-city stifling, he had moved on again, to Rome.
Böcklin's experiences in Rome were an important catalyst for his evolution as an artist. Exploring the ancient ruins of the city, and immersed in the religious iconography of Renaissance Art and the sensuousness of the Baroque, Böcklin moved away from the Realist idiom of his youth. Following the death of his first fiancée, and an unsuccessful marriage proposal, in 1853 Böcklin also met and married Angela Pascucci, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Papal Guard. Angela was his life-partner and muse, inspiring many of Böcklin's female nudes. Though the marriage was loving, his parents were not particularly supportive of his choice, and Angela's Catholic family were openly hostile because of Böcklin's Protestant heritage. The couple were unable to settle in Rome until 1862, after the death of one of Angela's aunts, Böcklin's staunchest adversary. This, combined with the fact that Angela gave birth to fourteen children, five of whom died in childhood, along with Böcklin's persistent ill health - the artist almost died of Typhus in 1859 - made the marriage emotionally fraught at times.
From 1856 to 1860, Böcklin and Angela lived in Munich, before returning once more to Basel, where Arnold was appointed to a two-year professorship at the Weimar Academy, on the recommendation of his friend and colleague Franz von Lenbach. Critics have noted that Böcklin's sojourn in Rome during the late 1840s was instrumental in determining the course of his future career. Missing out on crucial early developments in modern art such as the emergence of Impressionism in France, Böcklin had instead immersed himself in the work of the Renaissance Masters, and would never be entirely comfortable identifying himself as a modern artist.
From the mid-1860s onward, Böcklin spent the majority of his time in Rome, becoming ever more absorbed in ancient mythology which formed the thematic core of Renaissance art, identifying the morals and principles of these narratives as the basis of human civilization. According to Böcklin's student, the painter Rudolf Schick, in 1863 Böcklin studied Raphael's Vatican murals and the Pompeian wall paintings in Rome, and "the impression was so powerful that he was driven completely out of his previous path", requiring a year to reorient himself towards a new style. Böcklin's newfound appreciation for myth manifested itself in his mature paintings of the 1860s-70s, which, like the work of Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite artists from the same period, were increasingly preoccupied with the retelling of mythical narrative, often in idiosyncratic and unconventional ways. Art historian Sherwin Simmons notes that, while many viewers initially found Böcklin's work vulgar in its reinterpretation of classical mythology through a personal, even comic lens, "during the 1880s, German critics began to extol him as an artist who had turned away from nature's mere surface appearance and historical trivialities to create a poetic art that resonated with the inner imagination and dreams of the German people." Paintings like Battle of the Centaurs (1873), whose composition and theme are a homage to the famous 1492 marble relief by Michelangelo, were originally frowned on, but grew to be viewed as iconic artworks of the era. Böcklin's popularity also increased due to the circulation of etchings of his paintings by the Berlin-based art-dealer Fritz Gurlitt. These etchings, created on commission by the graphic artist Max Klinger - a significant artist in his own right - were disseminated widely amongst the German middle classes.
While Böcklin's most prolific period began in the 1860s, he would not attain fame until the later part his life, with himself and Angela forced to live a frugal lifestyle for most of his career. When success came however, it was on a grand scale, Böcklin becoming one of the best-known artists in Germany by the time of his death. This was partly symptomatic of cultural changes by the end of the nineteenth century, with a new bourgeois class emerging who were less attached to the Neoclassical and academic tastes that still held sway in much of the traditional art market. Böcklin's work sold well with this new audience base, often in the form of reproductions and prints.
Böcklin had been most prolific during the 1860s-80s, but he continued to paint across the last decade of his life, his place in the history of European art confirmed by a major retrospective in Basel in 1897. Art historians such as Pamela Kort and Sherwin Simmons have noted that paintings of Böcklin's such as Playing in the Waves (1883), the subject of a famous critique by the German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe following the exhibition, were seen to have marked a new aesthetic in German art, their curious combination of the sublime and the ridiculous influencing subsequent painters such as Paul Klee.
The Legacy of Arnold Böcklin
Arnold Böcklin died on January 16, 1901 in Fiesole, Italy, having influenced a number of painters of a broadly Symbolist bent, such as Rudolf Schick. The comic-grotesque aesthetic central to Böcklin's work would also become a point of fascination for many later modern artists, influencing the development of German Expressionism, and later French Surrealism, as well the proto-Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico; Böcklin also inspired Romantic composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff. At the same time, Böcklin's painting has not been above reproach, with the melodramatic extravagance of some of his imagery, and its circulation to a large, middle-class audience, seen to have taken him from the world of 'high art' to that of 'mass culture'. Böcklin's work was famously criticized as an example of "kitsch" by the mid-twentieth-century art critic Clement Greenberg, who described it as "one of the most consummate expressions of all that was disliked about the latter half of the nineteenth century."
In her analysis of Böcklin's legacy, the art historian Susanne Marchand notes that unlike the avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, Böcklin's abandonment of various conventions of academic painting was more by accident than design, a result of his attempts to conflate various painting styles such as Romanticism, Classicism, and Baroque. Indeed, though he is generally grouped together with the Symbolist painters, who also explored mythological imagery with a dreamlike intensity, Böcklin never viewed himself as a modern artist, but as an inheritor and re-worker of the post-Renaissance tradition. It is all the more ironic then, that his posthumous champions included Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and even Marcel Duchamp.