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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.