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Böcklin, Arnold

Category: Artist and sculptor


Arnold Böcklin (16 October 1827 – 16 January 1901) was a Swiss symbolist painter. 

The artist later spent extensive periods of his life in Italy, and his paintings drew extensively on classical myths. Among his most favourite mythological subjects were those portraying fauns, nymphs, Pans, sea deities (Nereids, Naiads, Tritons), and centaurs.

The style and subject matter for his paintings are deeply tied up with the culture, the historical events, and the descent into materialism that was prevalent during his life.  As such the following description will weave these themes together in order to give meaning to his work.

Early life

Böcklin was born in Basel. His father, Christian Frederick Böcklin (b. 1802), was descended from an old family of Schaffhausen, and engaged in the silk trade. His mother, Ursula Lippe, was a native of the same city. Schirmer, who recognized in him a student of exceptional promise, sent him to Antwerp and Brussels, where he copied the works of Flemish and Dutch masters. Böcklin then went to Paris, worked at the Louvre, and painted several landscapes.

The Apollonian/Dionysian works of Arnold Böcklin

Many German artists and writers before and contemporary with Bocklin considered Greek art and Greek culture to be the model of a perfect culture.  Both Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, for example, perceived the Greeks as an embodiment of wholeness, and many writers, poets and artists shared Goethe’s ideas about the necessity of the revival of Hellenism.

Faun and Naiad, an alternative view of lion taming

Friedrich Nietzsche managed to put into words the reason for this apparent perfection.  Greek culture melded the subconscious with the conscious.  It blended the Dionysian world of emotion, tragedy, sex, and ecstasy, with the Apollonian realm of intellect – principally however, the use of reason.   In this Apollonian/Dionysian combination, reason and instincts exist in perfect balance.


 In Nietzschean terms, the dialectic between calm Apollonian logic and exuberant Dionysian instincts produces harmony and balance. Whenever one predominates over the other, conflict and “dissonance” arises that strives to be “resolved”. The antagonism between the two is cancelled when they attain a harmonious symbiosis, like that represented in Greek dramatic poetry.



Friedrich Hölderlin’s work too abounds in influences, references, and inspiration from Greek antiquity, but he tended to treat Greek culture with more sentimentality and pessimism, a pessimism founded on a sense of loss - a longing for a utopian world that was irrecoverable.

Initially, Böcklin attempted to raise interests in this utopian ideal that was slipping from their grasp, by depicting it in much the same way that the classical painters had done. 

At this time, Böcklin belonged to the so-called Deutsch-Römer group. One of Böcklin’s earliest works based on a mythological subject was inspired by Schiller’s poem DieGötter Griechenlands  (1788–89),  and was used to illustrate an 1859 edition of the poet’s works. In accordance with Schiller’s poem, Böcklin painted a landscape of Elysian bliss, echoing Apollonian tranquillity. In Elizabeth Tumasonis’ words, Böcklin “conjured up a sense of the happy simplicity of life in classical antiquity as Schiller imagined it to have been”.  

Numerous other artists also, via their art, attempted to revive something of the Apollonian and Dionysian balance. Leading artists of the time, such as Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880), stylized their art and life “according to their concept of a higher and nobler humanity, after the model of the Greeks”[Gert Schiff].  Although Arnold Böcklin studied at the Düsseldorf academy under Schirmer, he became a friend of Anselm Feuerbach, meeting Feuerbach in Rome in 1856.

Böcklin with his wife

Böcklin had moved to Rome in March 1850.  Böcklin married twice.  He married Louise Schmidt in 1850, but she died a year later and then in June 1853, Böcklin married his second wife, a seventeen year old Italian girl, the daughter of a papal guard, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and she featured in a number of his works of art.  One such portrait was entitled Portrait of Angela Böcklin as a Muse which he completed in 1863 and the painting shown left.

His marriage, the many sights of Rome, his friendship with Feuerbach, and the abundant art works were his inspiration and his  allegorical and mythological compositions took their cue from Feuerbach’s example.

On his return to Germany, he exhibited the Great Park, one of his earliest works, Nymph and Satyr, Heroic Landscape (Diana Hunting), both of 1858, and Sappho (1859). These works, gained him an appointment as professor at the Weimar academy. He held the office for two years, painting Venus and Love, a Portrait of Lenbach, and a Saint Catherine.

But it appears that gradually Bocklin saw the futility of using the same idealistic model to depict the changing situation. 

Diana hunting

The shift to the dark side

The dark side and the light side, in theory Roger
and Angelique

At the time that Bocklin was painting, the Apollonian aspects of man’s character had been not only adopted to the exclusion of the Dionysian, but they had been extended way beyond anything that could be even remotely be called Apollonian. 

Instead of reason being the king of the Conscious mind, memory and ‘knowledge’, ego and desire had taken over.   Repression of sexual instincts and emotions was a key aspect of ‘Victorian’ type society.  In effect Dionysus in his joyful playful capacity was no more.

From thereon Böcklin adapted the tone and style of his mythological scenes.  His visions of antiquity, even in his earlier paintings are not the idyllic representations of the classical past, but he went even darker.  His figures possess none of the tranquillity and repose associated with classical artistic principles.

If we take an example, his Kentaur und Nymphe  (1855) has nothing idealistic about it. Similarly, Waldrandmit Faun und Nymphe, although painted early in his career, is indicative of the style that Böcklin later explored in a number of canvases.

The faun, a ‘boisterous forest creature’, seems to be after a delicate and unwilling nymph. The canvas tells more than just a story of seduction - it depicts rape.  This is the rape of Nature by materialism.  Even as early as this, Böcklin recognised that the descent of man into a more science driven materialistic age was destroying Nature and all that was Divine.  The feminine was being raped by the masculine and balance had been destroyed.  His paintings became a warning – a warning none heeded.

The dark masculine stands as a brooding presence overpowering the light
and the feminine.  A great separation exists between them an abyss of black rock
she glances uneasily over her shoulder.  Unity and balance have gone.

The German victory in the Franco-Prussian war, for example, inspired Böcklin to create several versions of the Battle of the Centaurs, in the words of Georg Schmidt, “the depiction of the most brutal of and brainless struggle among men”.

This conscious decision of Böcklin to depict a much darker descent into a far more terrifying and destructive age, using the same mythological themes to do so, not only differentiated his art from that of his predecessors, but aroused a great deal of interest in his fellow musicians – musicians like Brahms.

Brahms saw in Böcklin’s art the power of mythological figures to suggest sentiments or emotions, a characteristic that became extremely important in Brahms’s later choral works.


Böcklin’s dynamic depiction of classical myths differed from that of Feuerbach’s in its power to suggest inwardness. Böcklin’s were not just depictions of nature, but powerful images charged with emotions. Brahms reached the same stage of subjectivity in his career, by approaching his music not only descriptively, but suggestively as well. Brahms’s techniques of tone-painting are not restricted to produce only a literal representation of the text through the music. Many times his music serves as an extension of the text, contradicts or comments on the text, or reverses its meaning — that is, it deploys irony on several levels.

The death of the Divine [Higher spirit/Son] and thus our loss of all things spiritual represented by Mary Magdelene grieving over Christ's death

Arnold Böcklin, Brahms and Death

Brahms had also known and become friends with Feuerbach.  Only occasionally would the two artists meet, mainly during their summer sojourns, but they always held one another in great esteem, and shared the same love for classical art.

But then, in January 1880, Anselm Feuerbach died in Venice.

Böcklin lost a friend when Feuerbach died, but perhaps far more poignant, far more influential was that Bocklin also lost a baby daughter.

Böcklin is best known for his five versions (painted in 1880-1886) of the Isle of the Dead, which partly evokes the English Cemetery, Florence, close to his studio and where his baby daughter Maria had been buried.

Brahms chose to memorialize the early death of his friend in his Nänie, op. 82 (1881).  The words of Brahms Nänie became for Böcklin, the signature tune for the Isle of the Dead.  In the end, Böcklin lost 8 of his 14 children.


 “Even beauty must die” (“Auch das Schöne muß sterben”), none can escape the laws of transience and death. For the last twenty measures of Brahms’ work, we return to the penultimate line of the text: “To be even a song of lamentation in the mouth of the beloved is splendid.” With music of great serenity and repose, Brahms chooses to emphasize [that ]: life and beauty are transient but one becomes immortalized in art.


And thus in the Isle of the Dead, Arnold Böcklin immortalised his daughter in art.

“Brahm’s music evolves not as a gloomy dirge for the dead, not as an elegy for the inescapability of fate, but as a luminous hymn, a tranquil and subdued paean for those that with dignified, Apollonian calmness yield to their fate.”

The Isle of the Dead is also full of symbolic meaning, and we have explored this in the observation for the painting.

Villa by the Sea, Italy with a small mourning figure in black

Arnold Böcklin and the rise of materialism

The feminine in danger, engulfed soon by the water

Thus we have seen that Böcklin's paintings are essentially ones of mourning. 

There is the literal mourning of a father for his little daughter, and the mourning of an artist for a fellow artist.  But there is also the mourning for a lost utopia, the defeat of the feminine by the masculine, the loss of the balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. 

And there is mourning over the  destruction of Apollonian values - ego winning over humility and sacrifice; desire winning over generosity and charity; 'knowledge' taking over from inspiration and wisdom, and the death of reason.

Böcklin's later work has been described as  "one of the most consummate expressions of all that was now disliked about the latter half of the nineteenth century."[ Clement Greenberg].

Ultimately, all the artists of this time, musicians, painters, and poets expressed with increasing dismay their horror of the rise of materialism, the loss of all that was sacred, the dominance of imperialism and racism, the subjugation of the ‘feminine’ by the ‘masculine’.

The Deposition - symbolically the death of the Divine as the feminine mourns this loss of
connection with all that is most holy in us

Brahms’s setting of Hölderlin’s text from  Hyperion, for example, in Schick-salslied  (1868–71), depicted musically the break that had taken place between humans and the divine. The first two strophes of  Schicksalslied  establish a transcendental atmosphere of Elysian serenity which is cancelled by the third strophe’s bleak picture of suffering humankind. Furthermore, rather than a gesture of possible reconciliation between the human and the divine,  Brahms chose an ending that suggests stoic subjection to fate in recognition of the gods’ irrefutable will.

This could not be more apt for today’s likely mass extinction from climate change and the apparently unstoppable march of the humans [are they human at all], who have lost all touch with the gods:

Asclepius – Hermes Trismegistus
Such will be the old age of the world; irreverence, disorder, disregard for everything good. When all this comes to pass, Asclepius, then the master and father, the god whose power is primary, governor of the first god, will look on this conduct and these wilful crimes, and in an act of will – which is god's benevolence – he will take his stand against the vices and the perversion in everything, righting wrongs, washing away malice in a flood or consuming it in fire or ending it by spreading pestilential disease everywhere.

Odysseus und Polyphemus (1896)

Böcklin's later work is a reflection of all this – a prophetic vision of the future.  All his paintings at this time have this underlying theme of dismay, a sense of despair and unease. 


His Portrait of Myself, with Death playing a violin (1873), for example was painted in Munich, where he exhibited Battle of the Centaurs.  From 1876 to 1885 Böcklin worked in Florence, and painted a Pietà, Ulysses and Calypso, Prometheus, and the Sacred Grove, all subjects that by their subject matter show the unease he felt.

From 1886 to 1892 he settled in Zürich and the paintings of this period attempt to describe this ambivalent state in which we were heading – an apparent idyll but with very dangerous undertones.  It is interesting to note that in paintings such as the Naiads at Play and A Sea Idyll, the ‘feminine’ Naiads are looking deeply disturbed and frightened, whereas the lecherous and ‘masculine’ satyrs are clearly the evil ones of the scene.  There is no serenity here, Böcklin intended the name to be ironic – this is no Idyll at all.

We are sleep walking into a world no one wants’

The death of the divine... and does the masculine eventually realise what it has done?


After 1892 Böcklin moved to San Domenico, near Florence.  He died on 16 January 1901 in Fiesole. He is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in the southern suburb of Florence, Galluzzo (Italy).

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that his paintings, especially Isle of the Dead, inspired several late-Romantic composers.  Sergei Rachmaninoff and Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen both composed symphonic poems after it. Rachmaninoff was also inspired by Böcklin's painting Die Heimkehr ("The Homecoming" or "The Return") when writing his Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10.


In 1913, Max Reger even composed a set of Four Tone Poems after Böcklin of which the third movement is "The Isle of the Dead" (The others are "The Hermit playing the Violin", "At play in the Waves" and "Bacchanal").

None appears to have understood the deep underlying message that Böcklin was trying to convey.  Far far more telling is that Adolf Hitler was fond of Böcklin's later work, at one time owning 11 of his paintings. But he thought of them as an objective, not a prophetic warning message of disaster.

Brahms On his Choral Work Gesang der Parzen - published in the Zeitschrift für Musik 13 June 1896:

I often hear people philosophizing about the fifth strophe of the Parzenlied. I think that, at the mere entry of the major key, the unsuspecting listener’s heart must soften and his eyes become wet, only then does the whole misery of mankind take hold of him


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