Arnold Böcklin. Part 2 – Die Toteninsel

Self Portrait by Arnold Böcklin (1885)
Self Portrait by Arnold Böcklin (1885)

As I said in my previous blog there was a distinct change in the subject and style of Böcklin’s art in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Gone were the realist and naturalist landscape works which concentrated on the beauty of nature; depictions which included very few things, such as people or animals, which he believed would detract from nature’s magnificence.  Around 1854 Böcklin’s paintings began to become idealised with mythological connotations.  My original intention had been to look at the life and works of Böcklin in two parts.  Firstly, his early landscape paintings and secondly, his later symbolist paintings.  However I decided that his most famous painting, Die Toteninsel, should have a blog of its own.

Arnold Böcklin left Italy in 1857 and returned to Basel and the following year he accepted a commission to paint the dining hall of the merchant and Royal Hanoverian Consul, Karl  Wedekind in Hannover.  Wedekind also went on to purchase some of Böcklin’s paintings.  Financial and health issues began to blight Böcklin’s life around this time.  However his financial problems were to change when he and his family moved to Munich where he exhibited a number of his paintings at the Munich Kusnstverein.   It proved to be a tremendous success.  Fourteen of his paintings were purchased by Friedrich Graf von Schack, the Munich art collector, who also offered him the position of Professor of Landscape Painting at the newly founded Kunstschule in Weimar.  After completing four years of teaching art, Böcklin had managed to save some money, enough to return to his beloved Italy in 1862.

Isle of the Dead (Basel version) by Arnold Brocklin (1880)
Isle of the Dead (Kunstmuseum Basel, First version) by Arnold Brocklin (1880)

I now come to the painting by Böcklin which is his most famous and most talked about work of art, Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead).   According to Franz Zelger in his 1991 book, Arnold Böcklin: Die Toteninsel, Selbstheroisierung und Abgesang der abendländischen Kultur, the subject for this haunting composition came about in 1880 when  Böcklin received a commission to paint a “picture for dreaming”.

The commission came from Marie Berna, an American-born widow of a German diplomat, Georg von Berna, who had died of diphtheria in 1865. She was to later marry Count Waldermar von Oriola in 1880 and became Countess of Oriola.

 It all came about when she visited Böcklin’s studio in Florence.  Whilst at his studio she saw an unfinished first version of this evocative painting which is now housed in the Kunstmuseum Basel. This first version is an oil on canvas painting measuring 110 x 156cms, which was commissioned by Alexander Günther.  The title of the painting seems to have changed over time but Böcklin, on completion of the first version sent a letter to Gunther and wrote:

“…Endlich ist die Toteninsel soweit fertig, dass ich glaube, sie werde einigermaßen den Eindruck machen…”

(finally with the Toteninsel finished I think it will make quite the impression).

Isle of the Dead (Metropolitan Musum New York, Second version) by Arnold Böcklin (1880)
Isle of the Dead (Metropolitan Museum New York. Second version) by Arnold Böcklin (1880)

Marie Berna was fascinated by what she termed a dream image and immediately commissioned Böcklin to paint a version of this work.   Marie told Böcklin that it would be a painting in memory of her late husband and also be a “a picture for dreaming”.  She even made a special request that Böcklin should include in the work, besides the solitary figure who is rowing the boat, a draped coffin and a shrouded female figure standing up in the boat. Böcklin must have been persuaded that the additions Marie Berna had asked for would enhance the painting because he also added the shrouded female and draped coffin to the first version.  Although, to receive a commission was good news, Böcklin’s health, both physical and mental, was deteriorating.  His inability to have full use of his painting arm had lessened and that in itself caused him to have bouts of deep depression.

So what caused Böcklin to paint such a sombre picture, such as the Isle of the Dead?  Maybe the answer lies in a 1909 book his son, Carlo, co-wrote with Ferdinand Runkel, entitled Neben meiner Kunst. Flugstudien, Briefe und Persönliches von und über Arnold Böcklin.  His son wrote about his father’s physical and mental health at the time and the effort needed for him to carry on painting:

“…In the summer of 1880, the master’s painful afflictions precipitated a serious nervous depression. His lack of interest in working had been joined by fatigue and such a deep melancholy that those around him were seriously concerned about him. All manner of means were vainly sought to alleviate his bodily torments. …….. His heart and nerves had been adversely affected by an ample dose of salicylic acid that had become necessary. …..… As the last resort, his worried spouse hit upon the idea of a change of air, and Böcklin, who had always been a wanderer and derived his best artistic inspiration from the countryside, took up this idea with rapidly reviving spirits. In the company of (his pupil) Friedrich Albert Schmidt, he travelled to Ischia, the delightful island off the coast of Naples, in July, and sought the assuagement of his pains under the gleaming sun of the most beautiful summer sky and in the blue waves of the gulf. However, he was still with little hope on his departure, a downtrodden victim of his sufferings, and his final gloomy words to his wife were: “You will see me again in Florence either healthy or not at all.” …… Böcklin’s depressive mood at the time (was) so strong that, in his endless hours of agony, he seems often to have toyed with and considered the idea of taking his own life. The pain alone would not have disheartened this powerful man, but the rheumatic inflammation of his joints had also stricken his right shoulder, and, with his creative hand, with whose dexterity a new world had been created, Böcklin was only able to guide the brush in great pain and with great effort…”

Böcklin sent a letter to Marie Berna on June 29th 1880, in which he wrote:

“…The picture Die Gräberinsel (The Isle of Tombs) was dispatched to you last Wednesday. You will be able to dream yourself into the realm of the Shades until you believe you feel the soft, warm breeze that wrinkles the sea. Until you will shy from breaking the solemn silence with a spoken word….”

In this second version of the painting, which was given to Marie Berna, we see the figure of the widow dressed in white accompanying her husband’s draped coffin.  The boat heads towards a rocky isle with its high cliffs, into which are carved tomb chambers.  This second version, given to Marie Berna, was an oil on wood painting and slightly smaller than the first version, measuring 29 x 48in (74 x 122cms).  It was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1926

Isle of the Dead (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)
Isle of the Dead (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

Because of the success of the first two versions, Böcklin’s art dealer Fritz Gurlitt managed to persuade him to paint three more versions of Die Toteninsel but this time the suggestion was made that the sky should be much lighter.

Initials A B on the Isle of the Dead (Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)
Initials A B on the Isle of the Dead (Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

If you look closely at the outer edge of the high rock on the right of the third version of the painting, you will see Böcklin’s initials, “A B”, over the lintel of the burial chamber. It is interesting to note that the provenance of this painting shows Gurlitt sold the painting in 1933 to one of Böcklin’s admirers – Adolph Hitler.  He had the painting hung at the Berghof in Obersalzburg and later moved it to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.  This version is now housed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Black and white photograph of the fourth version of Die Toteninsel (1844)
Black and white photograph of the fourth version of Die Toteninsel (1844)

Böcklin painted the fourth version in 1884.  This work of art was bought by the entrepreneur and avid art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, the second son of the German industrialist August Thyssen, and it was kept in one of his banks.  Unfortunately it was destroyed during a World War II bombing raid and all that can be seen of this fourth version is a black-and-white photograph.

Die Toteninsel (Fifth version, Leipzig) by Arnold Bôcklin (1886)
Die Toteninsel (Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig. Fifth version) by Arnold Bôcklin (1886)

The fifth version of Böcklin’s painting, completed in 1886 resides at the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig.

In my third and final blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at some of his portraiture as well as his Symbollst paintings.  Symbolism was a late 19th-century movement and thrived throughout Europe between 1886 and 1900 in almost every area of the arts. It began with literature, poetry and the theatre and later flourished in music and visual art.  There was a definite connection between Symbolism in art and Pre-Raphaelite and Romanticism and in some ways it was viewed as an antidote to realism and naturalism in which the artist sought to capture exactly what was before them, warts and all.  Symbolists, on the other hand try to find a profound reality from within their imagination, their dreams, and even their unconscious.  From being compartmentalised as being a realist landscape painter, Böcklin, because of his later works of art, was looked upon as a Symbolist.  In my final blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at some of these works.

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Arnold Böcklin. Part 1 – early years and landscape painting

Self Portrait by Arnold Bocklin (1862)
Self Portrait by Arnold Bocklin (1862)

Paintings can elicit all kinds of feelings from the observer.  Some of the realist and critical realist paintings elicit a feeling of sadness and guilt.  Some paintings extract from us a sense of fear, whilst others bring forth a feeling of wonderment when we look upon a beautiful landscape or the portrait of a beautiful woman.  The artist I am featuring in my next two blogs produced a painting, which, to me, was one of the most haunting and evocative paintings I had ever seen.  The artist is the Swiss-born painter, Arnold Böcklin and the painting was entitled Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead).  He completed five versions of the work between 1880 and 1886.  I will look at this work in the second part of this blog.

Another reason for looking at some of the works by Böcklin is because I just returned from a three-day trip to Munich and instead of visiting the city’s major galleries such as the Pinakothek der Moderne and the  Alte Pinakothek, I headed for the Schack Gallery which houses a notable collection illustrating the development of German painting in the 19th century. The history of the gallery is that its founder, Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack, was a generous patron of the arts, purchasing and commissioning numerous works by many leading 19th-century German painters including Moritz von Schwind, Carl Spitzweg, Franz von Lenbach, and the Swiss born artist, Arnold Böcklin. Von Schack’s collection now forms part of the Bavarian State Collection.  This small gallery is a little gem and has an amazing collection of copies of works by the likes of Titian by German painters.

Ruined Castle by Arnold Böcklin (1847)
Ruined Castle by Arnold Böcklin (1847)

Arnold Böcklin was born in October 1827 in Basel.  In 1841, aged 14, Böcklin went to art school at the Zeichenschule Basel, which was run by the painter, Ludwig Adam Kelterborn.   A Zeichenschule was a drawing school where pupils were given the technical and artistic training of Craft Trade Association  His father was Christian Frederick Böcklin, who worked in the silk trade and his mother was Ursula Lippe.  In 1845, Böcklin, aged 18, studied art for two years at the Düsseldorf Academy under Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, the German historical landscape painter.  Böcklin initially painted landscapes and one of his early works was entitled Ruined Castle which he painted in 1847 and which is now housed in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Das Hünengrab by Arnold Böcklin (1847)
Das Hünengrab by Arnold Böcklin (1847)

Another atmospheric landscape work Böcklin completed in 1846 was one entitled Das Hünengrab (Megalithic Grave).

Böcklin excelled in his studies during his time at the Düsseldorf Academy and he was sent off on painting trips to Belgium with his friend and fellow student Rudolph Koller, where he was tasked with copying paintings by the Flemish and Dutch masters which were housed in museums in Antwerp and Brussels.  One of his favourite painters was said to be Peter Paul Rubens.  He returned home to Basel and then went to Geneva where he worked alongside the Swiss painter Alexandre Calame, a landscape artist, who specialised in Alpine scenes.

From Basel he set off on another painting trip, this time to Paris, where he remained for several months, sharing an apartment with his friend and fellow artist, Rudolf Koller.  Whilst here, he busied himself copying works of the Old Masters and some of his contemporaries, which were held in the Louvre.   He was influenced by the works of Thomas Couture and the landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot.   However the year was 1848 and Paris was not the safest place to be because of the February and June revolutions and so Böcklin left the French capital.

After a short spell of military service Böcklin got married.  His bride was Luise Schmidt but sadly she died before their first wedding anniversary.  In February 1850, heartbroken following the death of his wife, Böcklin travelled to Rome.  It was here that he was befriended by the Dresden-born artist Heinrich Franz-Dreber who introduced him to a group of German artists living in Rome, who called themselves the Tugenbund   (the League of Virtue).  He also became friends with Oswald Achenbach, who at the time was looked upon as one of the leading European landscape painters and Anselm Feuerbach, the German Neoclassical painter.

Landscape from the Alban Hills by Arnold Böcklin (1851)
Landscape from the Alban Hills by Arnold Böcklin (1851)

During his stay in Italy, Böcklin would spend the summers with some of his fellow artists in the Alban Hills, some forty-five kilometres east of the Italian capital, and it was there that they set up home in the village of Olevano.  One of Böcklin’s first painting he completed in Italy was Landscape from the Allban Hills which he completed in 1851.  This work of art is now housed in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe.

Roman Landscape (Römische Landschaft) by Arnold Böcklin (1852)
Roman Landscape (Römische Landschaft) by Arnold Böcklin (1852)

The following year, 1852, Böcklin produced another landscape painting featuring the Roman Campagna.  It was entitled Römische Landschaft (Roman Landscape), which can now be seen at the Brooklyn Museum.   Unlike some of his contemporary landscape artists, who had sketched and painted views of the Roman countryside, Böcklin overcame the urge to add famous landmarks.  He believed that such an addition detracted from flora and fauna and it was his intention to enhance the view of nature.  This painting was a simple landscape work with a small figure of a woman, seen in the middle ground, undressing prior to going for a swim in the pool.  She is just a mere white dot in the painting which gives viewers an idea of the enormity of nature with its huge old trees and cloud-filled sky.  He wanted his painting to be all about details of the foliage and rock formations.  It is believed that earlier studies for this painting included more than one bather and a satyr but Böcklin decided that these extra figures detracted from the “message” and so he painted over them.  Böcklin wanted viewers to understand the immenseness of nature and how light and shade can alter tonal qualities .

In 1853, three years after arriving in Rome, Böcklin married for the second time.  His second wife was a young Italian woman, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci, the daughter of a papal guard.  The couple went on to have fourteen children.

Böcklin changed his style of painting in the mid 1850’s when he began to include themes from Classical mythology and whereas his painting before concentrated on what he had seen they began to be about what he imagined.  Some believe that there was another reason for this change of style – money, or lack of money.  Böcklin needed to sell more of his paintings to survive and so he had to focus on what travellers passing through Rome wanted to see in his works.  These travellers wanted to buy paintings featuring Classical Roman sites.

Pan in the Reeds by Arnold Böcklin (1858)
Pan in the Reeds by Arnold Böcklin (1858)

In 1859 Böcklin was in Munich and exhibiting some of his works at the Munich Kunstverein.   It proved to be a great success for Böcklin as one of the works which he had completed the previous year, his second version of Pan im Schilf  (Pan in the Reeds), was bought by King Maximillian II, the ruler of Bavaria.  Fourteen of his other paintings were purchased by Friedrich Graf von Schack, the Munich art collector.   Furthermore, in 1860, through the auspices of von Schack,  Böcklin was offered the post of Professor of Landscape Painting at the newly founded Kunstschule in Weimar

In my next blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at the paintings he completed later in his life which designated him as a Symbolist painter.  Symbolism is defined as an art genre characterised by a rejection of direct, literal representation in favour of evocation and suggestion.  Symbolism produced imaginary dream worlds populated with mystifying figures from biblical stories and Greek mythology as well as unbelievable, often monstrous, creatures.

Vasily Perov. Part 2 – portraiture and humour

Self-Portrait (1851)
Self-Portrait (1851)

In my last blog I looked at Perov’s early life and his artwork which is often categorised as critical realism because of the way his paintings  focused on the peasants and how they had been let down by the Church, its clergy and the State.  For one of these works he was awarded the Gold Medal by the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and also a scholarship for him to travel to Europe and study European art.  He went to Paris where he spent a considerable amount of time but once again his art focused on poverty, this time, poverty in France.  Perov was now moving away from his anti-clerical depictions, and his barbed narrative works which poured scorn on the Church.  He now wanted to concentrate on the poor themselves and left the observer to decide on the reason for the poverty.

Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)
Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)

One of his most famous paintings, which he completed whilst in France, was one entitled Savoyard which he finished in 1863.  In Perov’s painting we see a young boy sat slumped on some stone steps.  The absence of any movement allows us to focus on the child without any distractions.  The child is asleep.  His feet stick out in front of him and this allows us to see the tattered hems of his trousers and because of the way is feet rest on the pavement we are given a view of the soles of his shoes, which are holed.  The painting itself is made up of dark sombre tones of smoky blue, green and grey.

Street Beggar by Gavarni
Street Beggar by Gavarni

It is thought that Perov’s painting was influenced by the work of Paul Gavarni, a French engraver, who had his illustrations published in a collection of London sketches, featuring life in London at the time.  The sketches and accompanying illustrations were first published as a magazine series in 1848 and later they were collected in one volume, edited by essayist and journalist Albert Smith, which was first published in Paris, in 1862, a year before Perov’s arrival in the French capital.  It was entitled Londres et les Anglais.  One of the sketches was the Street Beggar and its thought that Perov had this in mind when he worked on the Savoyard.

Perov’s arrival in Paris in 1863 coincided with a great upheaval in French art.  The Hanging jury at that year’s Salon had been ruthless in their choice of paintings which could be admitted.  Those which were cast aside were ones deemed to have not been of the quality or type they wanted.  That year, the jury had been more ruthless than they had been in the past, rejecting two-thirds of paintings.  This resulted in vociferous protests from the artists who had had their works rejected.  It was so bad that Napoleon III stepped into the argument and placated the disgruntled artists by offering them a separate exhibition for their rejected works.  It became known as the Salon de Refusés (Exhibition of rejects) and that year this exhibition exhibited works by Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Cezanne and included Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Whistler’s Symphony in White,no. 1. 

The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant's House by Vasily Perov (1866)
The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House by Vasily Perov (1866)

Perov returned home early from his European tour in 1865 and in 1866 produced a wonderful painting entitled The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House.  This was a move away from his focus on poverty and more to do with the fate of women.  In the painting we see a governess standing before the master of the house, a merchant who is to be her new employer.  This painting depicts the awkward encounter between the governess, who has probably graduated from a school for governesses, where they are taught to act like nobility, and the merchant who has no noble blood and is the face of the nouveau riche.   She presents herself well. She clutches a letter of introduction in her hands. She oozes an air of timidity and subservience, which is a trait that would be required if she was to become a member of the household.  However her demure stance with head bent down is befitting that of a lady.  She stands before, not only the master of the house, a bloated man, but behind him stands his family.  The children of the family are to be her pupils and by the looks of them she was going to be in for a difficult time.  The master of the house and his three children are dressed elegantly and the furnishings we see are fine and elegant and are part of merchant’s plan that they be elevated in status from mere merchants to something approaching nobility. Perov has changed the subject of his biting satire from the clergy of the Church to the oppressive merchant classes and the poor treatment they bestow on their employees.

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)
Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

The painting was purchased by thirty-four year old Pavel Tretyakov, a Russian businessman, patron of art, avid art collector, and philanthropist who gave his name to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.   This work along with his Troika painting earned Perov the title of Academician.

Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)
Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)

In the late 1860’s Perov began to concentrate on portraiture, initially of peasants and the title Wanderer was given to three of his works which featured peasants, all different and yet all emotive in their own way, one of which is shown above.  As Perov travelled around he came across a variety of fascinating characters and he was able present them on canvas and highlight their individualism and their way of life.

Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)
Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

In the early 1870’s Perov’s portraiture focused on cultural greats of Russia but it is interesting to note in these next two paintings they were totally devoid of any background accoutrements which would have added a sense of vanity in the sitter.  In 1872 he completed the Portrait of Dostoyevsky, a the Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. It was Dostoyevsky’s literary works which influenced Perov in the way they explored human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmosphere in Russia during the 19th-century.

Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)
Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)

And in 1871 he finished his Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky, a Russian playwright who was generally thought to have been the greatest writer of the Russian realistic period, which existed against the background social and political problems.  It started in the 1840’s under the rule of Nicholas I and lasted through to the end of the nineteenth century.   The painting is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)
Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)

In all his genre works he always managed to tug at your heart strings with his moving depictions.  Another of his heart-rending scenes was completed in 1874 and was entitled Old Parents Visiting the Grave of their Son.  It is said that nobody should suffer the agony of burying their children and in this work we feel the loss of the mother and father as they stand, heads bowed, at the side of the son’s grave.  This painting, like many of his other works, are to be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Having received his academician’s degree in 1867, Perov went on in 1871 to gain the position of professor at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.   It was through Perov’s teaching at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture that he managed to influence and nurture the young aspiring artists in his charge.  Many of the great Russian artists had been taught by him or were influenced by his style of painting

Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)
Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)

As always I have the dilemma of which paintings to show you and which ones to leave out.  I just hope the blog will get you to search the internet for more of his works.   My final offering is one that features Perov’s sense of humour.  It is in complete contrast to his works which looked at poverty and the impoverished existence of the peasant classes.   It is a painting entitled Amateur which he completed in 1862.  It is both humorous and fascinating.   Before us we see a man slouched in a chair, chewing on the end of his maulstick, eyes narrowed as he looks at his work.  His wife stands beside him holding a baby.  She too is closely examining the canvas.    From the way the man is dressed along with the background details of the room we gather that this is an upper-middle class couple.  Another give away to the man’s social status is the way Perov has depicted him.  Well dressed, highly polished shoes and overweight.  Perov’s depiction of this man is similar to the master of the household, the merchant, whom he depicted in The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House- overweight, through all the food he had been able to buy and eat, whereas in most cases Perov portrayed the poor peasants as thin undernourished people.

Vasily Grigorevich Perov died of tuberculosis  in Kuzminki Village which is now part of Moscow and was laid to rest at Donskoe Cemetery.  He was fifty-eight years old.