Arnold Böcklin was born on 16 October 1827 in Basle, the son of the merchant Christian Friedrich Böcklin and Ursula Lippe. His artistic apprenticeship lasted until 1850; he studied first at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf under the guidance of Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, an exponent of German Romanticism, and then went to Paris in 1848, where he had the opportunity to see the work of Corot, Delacroix and Couture. The outbreak of revolutionary unrest in the summer of 1848 forced him to return to Switzerland. Here he met the historian Jacob Burckhardt, who managed to obtain commissions for him and encouraged him to visit Italy. While he was in Rome in 1850 he received news of the death of his fiancé Louise Schmidt. However, he stayed in Rome until 1857, marrying the 17-year-old Angela Pascucci in 1853. He also discovered the ancient world and classical mythology, which would subsequently be a powerful source of inspiration for his painting and poetry. Finances were short in this period and he painted marketable views and landscapes of Rome, which were invariably interpreted according to a Classical ideal. After the birth of his first two children in 1855 and 1857, Böcklin was given, thanks to the intervention of his friend Anselm Feurbach, the task of painting the dining room of the Wedekind house in Hannover. The theme was Man and fire. In 1859, he moved to Munich and the following year he was appointed professor at the art school in Weimar. After abandoning teaching in 1862, he returned to Rome, where he greatly admired Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican. A further influence was also provided by a visit to Naples, where he discovered the Pompeii frescos, which were a stimulus in the development of his artistic technique and themes. In September 1866, he returned to Basle, where he painted a large number of portraits and where, from 1868 to 1870, he frescoed the great staircase of the Museum für Natur und Volkerkunde with mythological subjects. In the autumn of 1867 he had also carried out work in Stuttgart, decorating the summer residence of Aldemar Sarasin with frescoes. After having definitively broken all contacts with Burckhardt, an intense period of work followed in Munich from 1871 onwards. He then moved to Florence in 1874, where he met Hans von Marées. His daughter, Beatrice, was born here, but she died at the age of one in March 1877 and was buried in the Swiss Cemetery of Florence, also known as the English Cemetery. It was also in Florence that he painted the first of the five versions of the celebrated painting The Isle of the Dead in 1879. In 1885, he moved again, this time to Zurich, where he became a friend of the poet Gottfried Keller and where in the same year he suffered his first apoplectic stroke. After a recurrent episode in 1892 he spent time convalescing in Viareggio and at San Terenzio, before returning to Florence in 1893, where the Uffizi Gallery asked him to paint a self-portrait for its collection. In 1895, he bought Villa Bellagio in San Domenico (Fiesole), where he painted works such as The Plague (1898), the Tryptych (1899) and Melancholia (1900). He remained in Fiesole until his death on 16 January 1901, following numerous further recurrences of his illness. He is buried in Florence.
Pan whistling to a blackbird
Around about 1854 Böcklin painted his first pictures featuring rural gods, for example Syrinx Fleeing Pan (Dresden). The artist was often to choose as the leading ‘actor’ of his scenographic constructions this goat-footed pastoral god, whom he had play a number of roles – playing the flute; contemplating in solitude the midday hours; giving rise to the celebrated ‘timor panico’; or chasing the nymph Syrinx. In this picture, Pan is relaxed and lying down, playing with a small blackbird perched on a branch, whistling to it as if he wants to communicate with it. This is an unusual form of iconography that demonstrates the extent of Böcklin’s compositional freedom and authoritative knowledge of classicism. He permits himself a freedom that borders on the arbitrary, theatrically staging and highlighting the comic and grotesque aspects of the tale. The myth becomes dream or interior vision, parody or Romantic transfiguration. The scene is rendered with an impeccable pictorial technique characterised by great precision of detail – for instance, the leaves and the figure of Pan himself – and a “natural” shady effect.Iconography
Pan in the Reeds
In a non-temporal landscape akin to those of Anselm Feuerbach, in the midst of thick, atmospheric vegetation with spots of light on the ground and clear-coloured leaves, Pan, the pastoral god with goat’s hooves plays his pipes. Undisturbed, with his back to the viewer, he is looking into the distance beneath a cloudy sky. The painting has an unreal, suspended atmosphere; in the depiction of the subject, it draws on the ancient world and on Venetian painting, but the imagining of the landscape and the compositional sensibility are entirely personal and are related to the Romantic literature of Schiller and the Utopian dreams of Böcklin in that period. A first version of Pan in the Reeds dates to 1856-1857, while in 1858 and 1860 Böcklin did two paintings on the theme of the panic fear. The nostalgic evocation of the non-civilised South, which was imagined as a mythical and Romantic Arcadian world, often surfaced in the artist’s disposition when he was physically distant from Italy and Rome, where his first paintings had included nymphs, fauns and centaurs. In a letter to Jacob Burckhardt, Böcklin wrote: “In Germany I have managed to understand the German mind, the culture, art and poetry in such a way that I would like to leave tomorrow on the next train and go to the non civilised world”. Böcklin painted this work in Munich, and after his brief interlude as a teacher at Weimar, he returned to Rome in 1862 in the grip of melancholy for those Dionysiac places which he had so long dreamt of and imagined.Iconography
Villa by the Sea
The original idea for Villa by the Sea, of which he painted numerous versions from 1858 to around 1880, probably derived from the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, which frequently feature classical-style buildings in a natural setting. Böcklin was evidently fascinated by Italian villas, the rocky Tyrrhenian coastline and the cypresses of the Tuscan landscape, inspiring him to this curious pastiche which over a twenty-year period underwent various changes in light, framing and the combination of elements. In this version, which dates to 1864-65, his technique is realistic and precise, and the picture contains a number of new features: a woman cloaked in black waiting on the shoreline, rising steps, tombstones and statues in the garden of the villa and white birds in the sky. The colouring is dark and gloomy and the wind that is making the treetops sway and is whipping up the sea seems to disturb the woman and imbues the landscape with a sense of disquiet. The artist’s Castle by the Sea, painted in 1858, has a more tense atmosphere, while the preliminary sketch for Villa by the Sea in 1863 had an innocuous yet mysterious dimension. In the 1877 and 1878 versions there is a different light and sky and the villa has Brunelleschian arches instead of Ionic columns, while in the final version executed in 1878-80 the tones are gloomier, exemplified by the ruined appearance of the villa and the dark colours of the cypresses and birds.
Following his second stay in Italy at the beginning of the 1860s – in Rome, Naples and Pompeii – Böcklin returned to Basle in September 1866 and it was here that he probably painted this Italian-inspired work. Between 1868 and 1870 he also frescoed the staircase of the Museum für Natur und Volkerkunde in Basle with mythological scenes. Classical landscapes and mythological scenes would often be reevoked in the artist’s memory when he was a long way from the mythical sites of the South. These locations were taken in, assimilated and introjected to be then creatively reproduced with a physical and temporal detachment; in fact, it is said that the Dream of the South has Nordic roots. This work is clearly influenced by the tonalism of Titian, by his poetic world and by the natural and Giorgionesque sense of the landscape, immersed as it is in the typical cold light of Venetian painting. On the other hand, the meticulously crafted technique seems to be borrowed from the Pompeii frescoes; the light, transparent brushstrokes fade away in the lower section of the canvas, creating a non-finished effect or that of a preparatory study for a fresco. Barely outlined in the ideal landscape, the two delicate, nude figures disclose a lyric tale that commences in the Arcadian world of the pagan Renaissance and ends up in the intimacy of the nostalgic soul of the artist, a scenographer of feelings, states of mind and dreams.
Venus Rising from the Waters
Given the visualisation of the Goddess of Love as anadiomene, that is “emerged from the waves”, it is impossible not to think of Botticelli’s version of the Birth of Venus. Böcklin’s interpretation perhaps takes as its starting point what was one of the purest expressions of Florentine neo-Platonism, which had been immortalised in Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860. The image of the ideal woman, viewed frontally as she emerges nude from the spray of the sea, is transformed by Böcklin into a celestial apparition complete with butterfly-winged putti suspended amidst the clouds, holding a crown and a transparent veil wrapped around the legs of the goddess. It seems likely that the detail of the dolphin supporting the body of Venus on the water was suggested by Burckhardt himself. The latter, whose relationship with Böcklin had become hostile by this time, had preferred the previous version executed in 1868 and entitled Magna Mater (now in Basle at the Museum Augustinergasse), where the body of the goddess appears to be lifted up on a shell by four tritons emerging from the sea. Burckhardt had greatly appreciated the compositional originality of that work in relation to Raphael’s Galatea, another point of reference for Böcklin. This work, then, is an evocative vision of the enduring myth of the beauty of Venus, but it was certainly not the expression of a classical norm in the style of Burckhardt, Feuerback, Marées or Fiedler; The artist used all his considerable technique in this painting on wood to achieve this triumph of misty colours and forms, which was typical of his personal imagination.Iconography
Battle of the Centaurs
The battle between the centaurs and the Lapithai possessed a powerful ethical and symbolic value in Greek myth, in that the defeat of the centaurs used to be seen as the victory of reason over barbarity and of intelligence over primitive savagery. The scene had frequently been represented in this way by Greek artists in important monumental works such as the Temple of Zeus in Olympia and the Parthenon in Athens. Böcklin’s interpretation is clearly inspired by the profound moral value of the pedimental sculptures and the metopes of the temples, from which he drew the compositional structure and the tight, horizontal rhythm marked by the muscular tension of the bodies and the interwoven arms and hooves. The Titanic and Dionysiac inspiration animating Böcklin’s work also derives from German Nietzschean culture (The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1876) of scholars like Jacob Bachofen, who considered the myth to be a ritual and collective consolidation of primordial societal experiences. The chromaticity of this first version of the work, which was painted at Basle and exhibited at the Vienna Exposition in 1873, is loose and imprecise, consisting of tawny-coloured or cold blue blotches, and generates an emotional sensation of fantastic fairy-tale harmony that outweighs the physicality of the violent gestures. It is worth remembering here the simple formula used by Kandinsky in defining the artist: “Böcklin seeks the internal in the external”. It was this anti-decorative “interiority” that was imitated by Symbolist painting in the generation of Klinger, Stuck and Welti rather than his themes and style.Iconography
Painted in Munich and Florence and exhibited at the Vienna Exposition in 1873, where the artists had mixed fortunes, the work is imbued with the happy poetry of the classical myth. The subject appears to fit perfectly into the landscape with a chromatic and spiritual concordance that entirely befits the represented figure. Euterpe, “the one who makes happy”, was the Muse of song and lyric poetry, which can also be deduced from the presence of the flute by her feet. The woman’s beauty is reflected in that of the Italian landscape, with its blue sky and lush, green trees, while the small doe completes the idyllic scene. However, here too Böcklin only seems to reproduce nature mechanically; in fact, he gives expression to his inner reactions to reality and his imagination and dreams. The radiant myth of the classical-style landscapes becomes a means of conveying states of mind, nostalgia and moods. Partly as a consequence of this desire to interiorise things, Böcklin always firmly rejected the “en plein air” art of the Impressionists, who only focused on the superficial values of vision.Iconography
Triton and Nereid
This splendid, large-scale work was commissioned by Count Schack of Munich, who described it as follows: “Beings that would seem to live, not so much in the Mediterranean as in the Ocean”. Indeed, this type of composition, where the mythological and “Mediterranean” theme is interpreted in a languid, sensual, almost morbid fashion, reflects an evident Germanic sensibility that is very distant from the Classical idealism that would give rise to the Jugendstil of Franz Stuck and then of Max Klinger. In 1895, the latter produced a painting (in the collection at Villa Romana, Florence) that followed the same compositional structure as Böcklin’s work and featured the same two sea divinities in passionate embrace amidst the waves. Böcklin executed another version of the same subject – Triton and Nereid lying on a rock in the middle of the sea – in 1875; this was once at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin but was lost in 1945 and all that remains is a photo housed in the archives of Villa Romana in Florence. In comparison to the later version, this one (painted in 1873-1874) is more mysterious and fascinating due to the simple horizontality of the scene, which isolates the two sensual figures – the dark-skinned triton (seen from behind) playing a strange red shell and the extremely white, lascivious nereid holding in her left hand the neck of an enormous sea serpent.
This Botticelli-inspired Spring – hair strewn with flowers, absorbed expression and a thin, transparent veil fluttering on her shoulders – was painted in Florence during the artist’s first spell in the city, where he had met Hans von Marées and the circle of the so-called “Florentine Germans”. The painting is characterised by great tenderness and is executed in a distinctly Italianate style; the face of the young woman is captured from up close as if it were a portrait, the setting is a serene, luminous landscape, and there is not the slightest hint of a sensual or voluptuous dimension. The roots for the virginal beauty of Flora lie in Botticelli, but it also touches the chord of a typically Germanic nostalgic sensibility and there is a perfect harmony between the state of mind and the landscape, which would be a source of inspiration for the decadent taste of Symbolism and Art Nouveau. In this ideal equilibrium, the unifying element is the musically-infused colour, which involves the mind, feelings and imagination of the viewer. The profundity of Böcklin’s painting lies in the poetic and musical harmony that governs his work. Indeed, he loved and was very knowledgeable about music and played a number of instruments.Iconography
Diana sleeping with two fauns
Painted during the artist’s first spell in Florence, this work was much liked by the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It depicts a virginally austere Diana, the goddess of hunting, lying asleep on a rock covered by green moss. Two lustful goat divinities look on, eagerly contemplating the white, sensual body of the young huntress, who appears languid and unaware like a biblical Susanna. The two grotesque fauns, who stand out against a stormy sky, contrast all too obviously with the delicate features of the pale beauty, and their intentions are equally evident. The tale is thus simplified into an elementary narrative and into a symmetrical and horizontal structure which can be easily read without any formal misunderstandings or symbolic implications. The general atmosphere is the same decadent and Romantic one of Böcklin’s pagan fables, where divinities, fauns and nymphs emerge from the customary mythical dimension of classicism to live their own lives, moving and acting in a new 19th-century space dominated by fantasy, poetry and the aesthetic sensibility of the artist.
In 1885, Böcklin moved from Florence to Zurich, where he built his first house and became friends with the poet Gottfried Keller. The visual stimuli he had received in Italy, above all in Rome, while visiting the ancient tombs and observing Italian paintings of the Deposition and the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, had made Böcklin interested in the Christian subject of the Pietà, and he executed numerous versions of it. This version, painted when he was already in Zurich, seems to have been the last, and is marked by the presence amongst the clouds of the gentle faces of the artist’s young children, who had died prematurely. They observe the sacred event from above in the form of little angels. The scene focuses entirely on the drama of the Dead Christ, whose body is lying on the white tombstone, from out of which there appear romantic roses and on top of which there lies Mary, completely wrapped up in a black cloak of mourning which hides her real identity. The figure of the Virgin lies outside of classic iconographic canons and enters the symbolic dimension of the representation of death itself, of suffering and total desperation, a dark, gloomy allegory of the most lacerating pain that can exist – that of the death of one’s child. What we have here is an entirely human scene, which merely borrows religious iconography in order to achieve a modern transposition of a feeling and a state of mind which Böcklin had experienced directly, having witnessed the death of six of his twelve children.Iconography
This allegorical work was executed by the artist in the final years of his life, after he had retired to Florence and was living at Villa Bellagio in San Domenico (Fiesole), where he lived for six years until his death in 1901. He evidently harboured thoughts of death because in his final years of illness and suffering he produced many dramatic and obsessive works on this theme, for instance the numerous versions of War in 1896-1897 and Melancholia in 1900. The picture appears unfinished, above all the figures at the bottom executed with rapid brushstrokes that accentuate the tragic nature of the scene. Even the pale, dismal figure of Death astride a black-winged dragon does not have precise or clearly-defined limits, but just barely-outlined forms that make it seem like an apparition or a surprisingly modern theatrical representation very different from the customary naturalistic depictions of the myth. Rather it seems to be inspired by a late-Gothic Germanic visionariness. Böcklin had directly witnessed the terrible fever, plague and cholera epidemics, above all during his first period in Rome in the 1850s, and in Munich. In 1857, he had done a preliminary drawing for a work entitled The Plague at Rome, and in 1876 he had chosen the two themes of cholera and the plague for a series of drawings, which served as a basis for this painting in 1898. Of particular interest is the verticality of the scene and the brown colours against which the virginal white and the bright red of the clothes of the two female figures stand out. One of these figures is dead, the other is overcome by grief like a weeping Mary Magdalen.