Isle of the Dead

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"Dream yourself into the world of dark shadows"




This painting needs a little bit of staging. So please, dim the light, shoo anyone who's in the room with you, hit the play button of Rachmaninov's symphonic poem and let The Isle of the Dead engross your mind. Or let yourself dream into "the world of dark shadows".

If you know Arnold Böcklin, the Isle of the Dead is probably the painting you have in mind. One of them, really, because he has painted five versions (one of which has been destroyed during WWII bombings). Althouh I've never had the opportunity to see any (sigh), I like the Alte Nationalgalerie version best, though I like the darker side of the Liepzig version as well (therefore a trip to Germany is necessary) but the fact that the boat is closer to the shore makes it less captivating, in my opinion. 


Now, if that's ok you'll have to hit the pause button on that music because, in fact, Böcklin wrote to the commissioner that "it should be so quiet that one becomes frightened by a knock on the door". That's what he wished.
I think the sole purpose of this painting is to haunt you, it's so visionary and melancholic that it surely has haunted me ever since I've first laid eyes on it. Both the motifs and the general atmosphere are awe-inspiring. One would expect an island with trees to be battered by the wind rolling in from the sea, but here there seems to be a lull. The lofty cypress trees stand almost still in the cove. But they are laden with meaning : something solemn is to befall. The inauspicious sky against the immovable isle cast a gloom. The dolorous gloaming light of the background suffuse a sense of enigmatic threat but the calm vertical and horizontal lights, the circular pine grove surrounded by rock walls enhanced by some sort of magic golden light conjure up a feeling of peaceful rapture. It makes you long being on that boat, guided by a pall bearer, heading right to the shore. (Being a mythology freak, I like to think that it's Charon rowing.), finishing the solitary journey.
I love how this painting makes you gaze beyond. Beyond reality and every day life, beyond the simple beautiful to search for an uncanny and surreal vision immersed in the gloomy depths of fantastic melancholy, charged with profound trauma, and immeasurable nature, so symbolic of Dark Romanticism (even though this painting is by a Symbolist and considered as so).

Cultivate the silence, the dark, the shadows. There's nothing wrong with that. You're made of light and of dark.




Detailed view : https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/the-isle-of-the-dead/0wFgMTIQ3kZCpg?hl=en

Further reading :

Arnold Böcklin, exh. Musée d'Orsay, 2001-2002 (French)

Mélancolie : génie et folie en Occident (French, also available in German)

Le Symbolisme en Belgique (French)

Dark Romanticism (also available in French and German)


I've selected a few painting by Böcklin that I particularly appreciate :

Sapho II, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Musuem of Art
Medusa, 1878
Villa en bord de mer, oil, 1871-74, Städel Museum

The Sacred Grove, oil on panel, 1886, Hamburger Kuntshalle



Villa en bord de mer,









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