Isle of the Dead, five versions

Die Toteninsel
Arnold Böcklin

Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement. Its purpose was to base any form of art on a symbolic and spiritual vision of the world. It finds its origin in literature and more particularly in poetry, mainly in Europe. the french poet Charles Baudelaire, will experience in Les Fleurs du mal (the Flowers of Evil, 1857) the relationship between the abstract idea and the image responsible for expressing it. In order to reach this, all the senses are explored, and academicism (notably represented by the naturalist movement) is rejected. The art movement also included musicians, visual arts, painters. They used mythological and dream imagery, personal symbols, obscure and ambiguous references, almost in a philosophical way.

Mythological figures and symbolism in Bröcklin's paintings

Arnold Böcklin was a Swiss painter who lived half of his life in Italy. He’s the principal representative of German symbolism, due to his most famous painting Die Tetoeninsel (Isle of the Dead). The particularity being that he painted five versions of it within seven years.

The five versions depict a small rocky island which opens onto a coast, and sheltering in its center large vertical cypresses. The deserted island has cavities built by man in its steep cliff. A boat with a ferryman on board approaches to dock. In front of the boat, a deceased man standing in his shroud looks towards the creek into which the boat will enter. The water is calm and dark, but the weather is threatening and windy.

Part of the inspiration for this desolate landscape is the English cemetery in Florence, Italia. Bröcklin painted the first three versions of the Isle of the Dead in this town, and his daughter is buried in this cemetery. Moreover, there are many cypresses (associated with mourning) in the Tuscan cemeteries and countryside.


May 1880 – Oil on canvas; 111 × 155 cm; Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel.

The first version is linked to the second one, as they were completed at the same time. The ferryman can be compared to Charon, mythological son of the night, who made the souls of the dead cross the Styx. 

June 1880 – Oil on board; 74 × 122 cm; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reisinger Fund, New York.

The second version is a slightly reduced version of the first. When Arnold Böcklin painted the isle of the dead, Marie Christ-Berna came to order him for a second version. She is widow of Dr. Georg von Berna but has just got engaged to Count Waldemar von Oriola who she will mary at the end of the year. She takes the opportunity of this painting to mourn her previous marriage. She asked Brocklin to change the appearance of the boa scene. The white form and the coffin are her request. As a result the Swiss painter will modify his first version, and reproduces this motif in the following paintings.

May 1883 – Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm; Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The third version is the clearest of all. The female character is also more identifiable and the contours of the island more observable. At the right end we distinguish for the first time, above a burial chamber, the painter’s initials, A.B. Painted for Böcklin’s dealer, it will be later, in 1933, bought by Adolf Hitler. It is today the property of the German state

1884 – Oil on copper; 81 × 151 cm; destroyed in Berlin during World War II.

The fourth version was painted only to meet financial needs, as a reproduction. Purchased by collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, it burned down after bombing during the Second World War. Only one black and white photo remains.

1886 – Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm; Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
The fifth version, more obscure and windswept, was commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig.
Later, in 1888, Böcklin created a painting called Die Lebensinsel (Isle of Life). Painted as a place at the antipodes of what represents the Isle of the Dead, it is exposed with the first version in Basel.


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