Symbolist Visions
Arnold Böcklin: Island of the Dead – 1880

Metropolitan Museum, New York

A small rowing boat drifts on a slate-blue sea near a rocky tomb-encrusted island. The intense, brooding sky is scarcely lighter than the sea. The light is behind us, picking out the white marble of two mausoleums. It also highlights a white-clad figure standing in the centre of the boat, intent on the somber scene, whose erect and statuesque bearing echoes the sentinel cypresses which are growing to an improbable height on the inhospitable island terrain. Silence enfolds us, and the coldness of eternity seeps into our consciousness. The skiff is entrusted with a cargo of death – a coffin, shrouded in white like its watchful and enigmatic guardian, is balanced somewhat precariously across the stern. A woman with long auburn hair is guiding the craft. But in which direction? Towards the island in order to deliver the coffin to its last resting place, perhaps in one of the mausoleums? This would seem the obvious interpretation. However, on closer inspection, it seems that the prow of the craft is pointing towards us, as if it is being rowed away from the island – perhaps the uncertainty this engenders is part of the game that Böcklin is playing – part of the psychological makeup of the picture.

The woman at the oars is probably supposed to be synonymous with Marie Berna who had asked Böcklin to paint a picture for her shortly after the death of her husband. It seems that the motif came to Böcklin while he was recovering from influenza on the island of Ischia. Born in Switzerland and trained in Germany, he had spent two lengthy spells resident in Rome and at the time this painting was made he was living in Florence. His art was steeped in the landscape of Italy and in the classical world but all these influences were alloyed with a Germanic romanticism which made for a fascinating mix, especially here in his most influential and celebrated work.

Already the subject of much acclaim, Böcklin’s fame was sealed by this painting which became so popular that he painted four further variants between 1880 and 1886 (the Metropolitan version being the original). This critical enthusiasm did not endure long after his death in 1901; the advent of modernism precipitated a steep decline in his posthumous reputation although his work attracted the attention of Giorgio de Chirico and later the Surrealists.

It is not difficult to appreciate the psychological link between Böcklin and de Chirico – the sense of dreamlike foreboding, the profound stillness and the presence just below the surface of a disturbing anxiety. Böcklin said that ‘a picture should tell a story, make the spectator think, like a poem, and leave him with an impression like a piece of music.’ This painting is an admirable exemplar of those principles.

Text by Geoffrey Smith

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Artist Information

Contemporary Works

1880 Paul Cézanne: Still Life with Fruit Dish, New York, MOMA

1881 Édouard Manet: Lady in a Fur Wrap, Vienna, Belvedere