Arnold Böcklin

Self-portrait with wife. Arnold Böcklin
Self-portrait with wife

Arnold Böcklin – an outstanding master of mythological scenes and the author of the famous “Isle of the Dead”

Arnold Böcklin (born October 16, 1827 – died January 16, 1901) is a famous Swiss artist of the 19th century, one of the founders of Symbolism, who created a new aesthetics in European fine arts and masterfully combined different styles in his works: romanticism, classicism, baroque. The work of Arnold Böcklin, like the biography of the master, departs from historical trivialities. His paintings, bright and contrasting, combine the sublime and the funny, resonate with the inner imagination of the viewer.

Children Carving May Flutes, 1865. Arnold Böcklin
Children Carving May Flutes, 1865

Arnold Böcklin was born in Switzerland, was often perceived as a German artist and loved Italy dearly all his life. He abandoned the conventions of academic painting, walked towards success for a long time and never identified himself as a contemporary artist. But he managed to create a special, sometimes demonstratively mysterious world, in which fictional images and fantastic symbols are surprisingly harmoniously combined with realistic elements.

A plowed field in early spring. Arnold Böcklin
A plowed field in early spring


Arnold Böcklin was born on October 16, 1827 in Basel, in a merchant family. His father, engaged in the silk trade, often traveled, which influenced the future artist’s interest in travel. Carried away by the fine arts and gravitating towards new knowledge, the young man leaves his father’s house and Switzerland at an early age.

From 1845 to 1847, young Arnold studied painting at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts under the guidance of landscape painter Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and romantic painter Karl Friedrich Lessing. He gets acquainted with the works of the Nazarene who tried to revive the artistic traditions of the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance in art.

Self-portrait with Death. Arnold Böcklin
Self-portrait with Death

The coexistence of various artistic trends in Dusseldorf was reflected in the formation of the stylistic eclecticism of the master. Dramatic effects of shadow and color appear in his works. Landscapes become more expressive.

In 1848, on the advice of his mentors, Arnold Böcklin went first to Antwerp and Brussels, then to Geneva and Paris to continue his studies. This period becomes a turning point in creative development. The young artist is inspired by the romantic paintings of Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix, the realists of the Ecole de Barbizon and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, the Baroque style of Peter Paul Rubens.

The Plague (1898)
The Plague (1898)


Influenced by the epic Swiss landscapes of Alexandre Calame, Böcklin’s paintings turn to realism. Romantic introspection is giving way to plein air objectivity. But the subsequent trip to Paris during the February Revolution of 1848 plunges the young man into the horror of bloodshed. He returns to Basel, plunges into a routine of gloomy thoughts and emotional experiences.

By 1850, having felt the stifling atmosphere of his hometown, Arnold set out on a journey again. This time to Rome, which became the catalyst in his work. Exploring the ancient ruins of the city, Vatican frescoes and Pompeian wall paintings, Böcklin departs from the realistic idiom, plunges into the religious art of the Renaissance, the sensuality of the Baroque and the ancient mythology that preceded them.


His paintings are filled with lush southern vegetation and the warm Italian sun. The characters are lonely shepherds, frolicking nymphs and lustful centaurs, reflecting the polarity of life, the contrast of light female spirituality and dark male sensuality.

Period from 1860 to 1880 became the most productive in the work of Arnold Böcklin. In his mature paintings, love for the mythical story is fully manifested, reinterpreted through the prism of personal, sometimes even comic experience.

“The Playing Nereids” (1886)

The artist writes allegories, continues to explore the opposition of masculine and feminine principles. However, the peculiar, unconventional works are disapproved by critics. The public finds the master’s paintings vulgar.

Not finding fame, the painter spent most of his life in modesty and obscurity. However, when success came, it became enormous.

Since the 1880s, critics have praised the master. The last decade has been the peak of its popularity. In 1892, Arnold Böcklin bought a villa in Fiesole, Italy, and five years later held a major retrospective exhibition in Basel. On January 16, 1901, the master leaves the world.

Dead island
Dead island

The most famous paintings by Arnold Böcklin

The great master preferred not to give names to his works, they were later invented by dealers and owners of art galleries for the exhibition of works. Here are some of the most famous paintings by Arnold Böcklin:

  1. Pan in the Reed (1857) is an image of the ancient Greek phallic god, with whom the artist identified himself. The work was acquired by the king of Bavaria in 1858, and it also brought the master his first fame.
  2. Lamentations of Mary Magdalene over the Body of Christ (1867) – the plot of the work is inspired by the work of Hans Holbein der Jungere
  3. “Dead Christ” gives the impression of pathos. Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Violin (1872) – the painting demonstrates realistic painting combined with Gothic humor and reveals the artist’s eclectic style.
  4. Isle of the Dead (1880) is the first of five versions of the master’s most famous painting, in which romantic and fantastic visions are intertwined. Thanks to the mystery and ambiguity of interpretation, the work has become a model for many generations of painters.
  5. “Playing Nereids” (1886) – in the amusements of sea maidens, Arnold Böcklin personifies the goddess Venus and reflects the natural forces of Eros.
  6. The Plague (1898) is one of the last works in which the artist reflected the dramatic sound of death and foretold the tragedies of the next century.

Arnold Böcklin has rightfully taken his place in the history of European art. His works, filled with comic-grotesque aesthetics, laid the foundation for symbolism, influenced the development of German expressionism. French surrealism, and became an object of admiration for posterity.

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