(b. 1827, Basel, d. 1901, Firenze)

The Island of the Dead

Oil on canvas, 111 x 155 cm
Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

The Island of the Dead is the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin's most famous composition. Beginning in 1880, he painted five modified versions, four of which have survived (Basel, Kunstmuseum; New York, Metropolitan Museum; Berlin, Nationalgalerie; and Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste).

Each version of the painting shows a magically illuminated island rising from the sea against a gloomy night sky. Burial chambers have been carved into the rocky cliffs around the natural harbour, with dark cypresses rising above them. A boat with a coffin, a statuesque figure swathed in white like a mummy and gazing away from the viewer, and an oarsman glides slowly across the water towards the island. Although we can almost hear the soft splashing of the oars, this only heightens the incredible silence that pervades the scene - a "visual silence" underscored by the equilibrium of horizontals and verticals. The low-lying horizon creates an impression of endless depths. The sparingness of the composition is matched by the palette: reddish rocks reflecting the last evening sunlight, the eerie white of the figure in the boat, the deep blue and violet of water and sky (which in other versions is stormy), and the dark, nearly blackish green of the cypresses. Many attempts have been made to find the original model for this mysterious island: the cemetery island of St. Jurai south of Dubrovnik, Pontikonissi off Corfu, and one of the Ponza Islands in the Golf of Gaeta have been suggested. But an identical correspondence for Böcklin's fascinating view has been found nowhere in reality.

Beyond its evocation of life's transience, the potential meanings of this major work of Symbolism have yet to be entirely decoded. Nor, apparently were they ever intended to be, because the lady who commissioned the painting, Marie Berna of Frankfurt am Main, had desired "a picture to dream over," and Böcklin himself envisioned its effect as being "so silent that you would get a fright when there was a knock on the door." The meaning of the enigmatic image ultimately remains up to the viewer's imagination.