Title: The Isle of the Dead
Dimension: 150.0 x 80.0 cm
Arnold Böcklin spent the autumn of 1879 on Ischia. The Castello Alfonso, on a small island nearby, deeply impressed him during his stay. When the young, widowed Marie Berna visited Böcklin’s studio in Florence in 1880 and asked for a “picture to dream by,” the memory of that landscape must have merged with earlier memories of, for example, the islands of the dead like San Michele in Venice and Etruscan cliff-necropolises. The Isle of the Dead became one of Böcklin’s most popular pictorial works. He achieved this by combining a limited number of ideas into an impressive atmospheric composition. The motifs — island, water, and castle or vil-la by the sea — are already familiar from many of his earlier works. However, in this case they have been concentrated into a statement of the artist’s Weltanschauung. The location is sinister. The viewer’s gaze is led up the steps but can penetrate no further into the darkness. The island’s strict symmetry, the calm horizontals and verticals, the circular island surrounded by high cliff walls, and the magical lighting create an atmosphere that is both solemn and sublime, evoking a sense of stillness and other-worldliness. The ripple-less surface of the water and the boat bearing the coffin with a figure shrouded in white behind it add a melancholy tone to the whole. The picture owned by the Nationalgalerie is the third of five versions. It was commissioned in 1883 by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt. It was Gurlitt who then gave the work its memorable title and, with a keen eye for business, asked Max Klinger to make an etching of it. This was the version that established the extraordinary fame of the picture in the late nineteenth century. All-pervasive in the form of photographs and prints, the Isle of the Dead mirrored the feeling of a whole epoch: people identified with it and it became a favorite fin de siècle image.