We assume to a certain extent that most artists’ work is influenced by their life. Arnold Böcklin is known for his famous image The Isle of the Dead, a composition of which he actually did five different versions. The one shown here is in Berlin, there is also one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you’ll encounter a couple of the others in the links I’ve provided.
Böcklin also did a painting called Self Portrait with Death. The seemingly macabre fascination with death can be better understood when you learn that the painter’s life was impacted by it again and again. Five of his eleven children died in infancy and his family had to flee two different cholera epidemics.
Böcklin was one of the best known of the Symbolist painters. Symbolism was a loosely defined movement in art and literature in the late 19th century. The symbolists’ images were often dreamlike, mystical and filled with mythological subject matter, but the “symbols” were likely to be arcane and personal, not the universal symbols you might expect from the term. The Symbolists had a distinct impact on Art Nouveau (see my post on Alfonse Mucha) and were predecessors of the Surrealists in their exploration of dream-inspired imagery.
Böcklin actually called The Isle of the Dead “a tranquil place”. It supposedly was inspired in part by the “English Cemetery” in Florence, near where Böcklin had his studio and where one of his children was buried. I have to wonder, though, if it was also inspired by Isola di San Michele, the island cemetery of Venice. I saw it from a boat and, while it lacks the dramatic landscapes of Böcklin’s compositions, it has the cypress trees and the strange quality of actually being an “island of the dead”.