Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Arnold Böcklin
1827-1901

Back to Symbolism

Arnold Böcklin was a Swiss painter, born in Basel on 16th October 1827, the son of a textile merchant, and went on to become one Switzerland's major 19th century artists.  

His allegorical and fantastical paintings, many based on mythical creatures, anticipated 20th-century surrealism. His early style consisted of idealized classical landscapes. In the 1870s, he turned to fantastic scenes from German legends, paralleling the use by Richard Wagner of similar subjects in opera. His later works, such as "The Island of the Dead" (in five versions, from 1880, one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York City), became increasingly dreamlike and nightmarish. 

The centenary of his death (16th January 2001) was celebrated by Swiss Post's issuance of a special stamp in September 2001, showing the artist's view of "Venus". 

Switzerland 2001. Symbolism. Arnold Böcklin. The Birth of Venus.

After training at the Basel Municipal School of Art and Düsseldorf Academy of Art, Böcklin went on a study trip through the Alps, from the Grisons to Lake Geneva, in 1847.

In 1848, when he was in Paris, he was caught up in the confusion of the February Revolution.

The following years he spent in Rome, and it was in the mid-1850s that the first mythological figures featured in his Roman landscape. 

  • Switzerland 2001.  "The Birth of Venus" by Böcklin, painted in 1869, when the artist was 42 years old. Oil on canvas. 

Böcklin was an energetic figure devoid of the languid melancholy of 'decadence'. Italy's light and aura of antiquity were decisive in his early development; his paintings quickly came to be populated with mythological figures, with centaurs and naiads. Not until his fiftieth year did he begin to paint the powerfully atmospheric works associated with his name today.

Böcklin's choice of imagery is not coincidental. A young widow had asked him for an 'image to dream by', and the funereal serenity perhaps echoes something of the artist's own emotions about death. At the age of twenty-five, during one of his stays in Rome, he had married the daughter of a pontifical guard who bore him eleven children between 1855 and 1876; five of them died in infancy, and the Böcklin family was twice (in 1855 and 1873) forced to flee cholera epidemics. 
 
Arnold Böcklin. Symbolism. Self-portrait from the cachet on the  first day cover issued by Switzerland 16th September 2001.

Self-portrait, serving also as cachet on the FDC, issued 16th September 2001. 

Arnold Böcklin. Symbolism. Playing in the Waves.

"Playing in the Waves"

Arnold Böcklin. Symbolism. The Plague.

"The Plague"

Böcklin's art reveals a robust temperament. He showed no reticence towards the new technologies then sweeping the continent. He devoted time to the invention of a flying machine, negotiating with businessmen for its manufacture. His Germanic feeling for nature was expressed in canonic Romantic fashion, in such paintings as The Sacred Wood (1882), but its most striking expression is The Silence of the Forest (1885) in which a bizarre unicorn, part cow, part camel, emerges from a forest, bearing an equally enigmatic woman on its back." 

One of the most famous of his paintings is the painting known as The Isle of the Dead (1880), which Böcklin himself entitled 'a tranquil place'. It was clearly important to him; he made five different versions of the composition. The new title was suggested by the white-draped coffin on the boat, the funerary presence of the cypresses, and the overwhelming impression of immobility and silence. The white figure vividly lit by a setting sun is contrasted with the dark, vertical forms of the trees, impervious to the slanting rays of the sun. Like a dream, the painting condenses a number of contradictory sensations and emotions.

Arnold Böcklin. Symbolism. Isle of the Dead.

Most of his works are on permanent exhibit in Basel Art Museum, Switzerland. 

Sources and links: 

Other Symbolist artists on this site:

Back to Symbolism


Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Revised 24-jul-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
Copyright © 1999-2007. All Rights Reserved

Homepage Heindorffhus