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Island of the Dead, 5th version

Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig

Inspired by his viewing of this painting in Paris in 1907, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov wrote the tone poem “Isle of the Dead” in 1909.


Bryson Burroughs comments on the five versions of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead on the occasion on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition of one:

“In both pictures [New York and Basel] the effect is that of evening. The sky and water are dark but the island and the figures are lit by a mysterious afterglow. The [New York] picture…which he finished for Madame Berna, later the Countess Oriola, with her taste in view was given a softer expression by increasing the flowers on the island of tombs; the other [Basel] was more austere and forbidding….                                                                               A third version different from the others was painted three years later for the dealer [Fritz] Gurlitt, and is now owned in Worms. This is the work of which Max Klinger made a free copy in one of his etching. The artist also made two more replicas in 1884 and 1886, such was the popularity of the subject; one is now in the Museum of Leipzig, the other owned privately in Berlin. But these last pictures, painted in bright colors with violet-red sky and sea, the island and cypresses towering ever higher, lack the mysterious serenity of the earlier versions. For like so many artists who rely for success on the sensational or literary content of their pictures, Böcklin outwore this remarkable and very real inspiration by repetition.”

Bryson Burroughs, “The Island of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 6 (June 1926): 148. 


Musical conductor Leon Botstein reflects on the significance of Böcklin’s Island of the Dead:

“Böcklin’s legendary paintings entitled Isle of the Dead symbolized the parallel tension between dream, imagination, and external reality. The intense interior emotion captured by Böcklin permits the viewer to contemplate analogous, nearly autobiographical, sentiments. The scenes are not symbolic, but suggestive, so that in the process of seeing, the viewer experiences a parallel contemplative sensibility.”
Leon Botstein, “Brahms and Nineteenth-Century Painting,” 19th-Century Music, vol. 14, no. 2 (Autumn 1990): 164.

Related Works:

Island of the Dead, 1880 (Kunstmuseum, Basel), 1st version

Island of the Dead, 1880, oil on wood (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), 2nd version

Island of the Dead, 1883 (Nationalgalerie, Berlin), 3rd version

Island of the Dead, 1884 (destroyed in World War II), 4th version, clak and white photograph

The Sacred Grove, 1886 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

Related Works by Other Artists

 Henrich Schülz-Beuthen, Island of the Dead, 1890 (music; symphonic poem)

About the Artist

Born: Basel, 19 October 1827
Died: San Domenico, near Fiesole, 16 January 1901
Nationality: Swiss