The Isle of the Dead

Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) produced five different versions of this dark and disturbing scene. Images of four of these paintings are presented below.

This painting (1880) hangs in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. The image was found on Carol Gerten's Fine Art - A Virtual Art Museum web site.

Jenn has viewed this painting (1880) at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and tells me that this scan of the painting is much darker than the original (in fact, I have lightened the image to bring out more detail).

This painting (1883) is in the collection of the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany. The image was found on the State Museums of Berlin web site.

This painting (1886) is in the collection of the Leipzig Art Museum (Museum der Bildenden Künste) in Leipzig, Germany. I obtained this image from their web site.

This is a modern interpretation of Böcklin's masterpiece by HR Giger. It was found on a web site that is no longer active.

According to one Böcklin web-page (no longer extant) that I have visited, the artist painted another version of Isle of the Dead in 1884, its current whereabouts unknown. The web-page includes an impressive list of sources at the end of the article, but does not indicate which provided that particular bit of information. A Wikipedia article on these paintings states that the lost version was destroyed in Berlin during the 2nd World War, but does not cite a source for this information. The article also provides a photograph of the painting. Böcklin's masterwork has inspired other artists in various fields: music by Sergei Rachmaninov, fiction by Roger Zelazny, and art by HR Giger (above).

Böcklin disliked titling his works as a matter of principle. He felt that paintings should evoke a mood in the viewer, and evidently thought that attaching a title would interfere with this objective. In this belief he was probably correct, as a title certainly seems to predispose one to experience a work in a particular way. However, our more prosaic minds seem to require labels. One famous example of this is Beethoven's Piano Sonata in c sharp minor, which was given a more descriptive name by a music critic named Rellstab. Thereafter the artist's violent motion of spirit, poured into music, was reduced to a critic's quiet impression of moonlight on water in the minds of countless listeners. By the same token, the title The Isle of the Dead is the invention of an art dealer named Fritz Gurlitt, who perhaps realized (correctly), with a merchant's keen and deadly intuition, that one can not market an artwork without giving it a name.

Tim Eagen
August, 1999

Updated on October 29, 2014.