The Story in Paintings: Böcklin’s classics and symbols

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Island of the Dead (version 3) (1883), oil on panel, 80 x 150 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) is known today largely for a single series of paintings, his Island of the Dead. Trained at the Düsseldorf Academy, he was the Swiss member of a small group of largely German symbolists whose existence has been suppressed in favour of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Although Swiss and trained in Germany, he spent long periods in Italy, from 1850 onwards, and painted many scenes from classical mythology. The earlier of these had relatively little narrative content, but from the 1870s on he increasingly portrayed stories rather than producing portraits of mythical figures.

Böcklin’s paintings are now relatively obscure, and there is scant modern literature. This has undoubtedly been influenced by the American critic Clement Greenberg, who in 1947 damned Böcklin’s work as being “one of the most consummate expressions of all that was now disliked about the latter half of the nineteenth century.” Coming from a self-appointed judge of artistic taste who promoted abstract expressionism and colour field painting to come close to destroying painting as an art form, this can only be taken as high praise.

Fight of the Centaurs (1873)

In Greek and Roman mythology, the centaurs were creatures with the upper body of a human, down to the waist, fused onto the body (with all four legs) of a horse. Although some tales about centaurs suggest otherwise, in general they represented the lower appetites and behaviours of humans, and were more like wild horses than people. They were known for their fights with Lapiths, an Aeolian tribe, against whom they wielded rocks and limbs of trees. Centaurs persisted in legends and stories well into the Middle Ages.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Fight of the Centaurs (1873), oil on canvas, 105 × 195 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Böcklin’s depiction shows them fighting one another, in hand-to-hand combat, and wielding rocks. Their body language is clear and violent.

Roger and Angelica

Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is an epic poem containing, among others, the tale of the knight Roger (Ruggiero), who is out riding near the coast of Brittany on his hippogriff (half horse, half eagle). He discovers the beautiful Angelica chained to a rock on the Isle of Tears, where she was left by abductors as a sacrifice to a sea monster. As Roger approaches to free her, the monster appears from the sea. Roger drives his lance in between its eyes to kill it, then rides off with the rescued Angelica.

Roger freeing Angelica (1873)

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Roger freeing Angelica (1873), tempera on panel, 46 × 37 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

In his first painting of the scene, Böcklin provides us with a composite image of the story. Angelica is bound to a tree, around which the fearsome sea monster is already coiled. Roger approaches from behind, riding a conventional horse, his lance ready to kill the unsuspecting monster. Nowhere does Böcklin show the sea, or show this as being particularly coastal.

This is very different from Ingres’ more literal portrayal in his Roger Rescuing Angelica (1819).

Böcklin shows the story at a momentary pause in the action, just before Angelica can plead with the knight to save her life, before the monster sees Roger approaching, and before Roger can try to kill the monster. Angelica’s face seems almost emotionless, Roger’s is concealed, and the monster hardly looks menacing. There is almost no body language either. Böcklin has come close to painting a pre-action group portrait, rather than the vigorous account of the centaurs.

Roger freeing Angelica (1879-80)

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Roger freeing Angelica (1879-80), medium not known, dimensions not known, whereabouts unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

Six years later, Böcklin visited the story again, although unfortunately this painting appears to have gone missing at present. He has jumped forward to the moment after the climax of the action, and the monster’s blood is still pouring from its severed neck. Roger, his face concealed, is draping a robe over Angelica’s naked body. She stands, still transfixed by the fear which has now been resolved, her face showing the imminent relief of stress by tears. Her hands are held up in helplessness and surrender to events, and her knees slightly flexed in fear.

Sirens (1875)

A popular story from the Homeric Odyssey, the Sirens were one of the many hazards which Odysseus/Ulysses had to overcome. They were two to five creatures who inhabited a section of the Mediterranean coast, and lured men to their death with their singing. Various descriptions of them were given, usually involving some combination of beautiful women and parts of the body of birds. I have previously shown JW Waterhouse’s fine painting of Odysseus and his crew sailing past the Sirens.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Sirens (1875), tempera on canvas, 46 × 31 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Most other depictions of the Sirens show them in the context of Odysseus’ passage, and place considerable emphasis on his vessel and men. Böcklin takes the much more unusual approach of almost dereferencing Odysseus – although there is an approaching vessel which could be his – and making the Sirens fill his canvas.

The Sirens shown are very human down to the waist, below which they resemble birds. One sits facing us, clearly in full voice, and very alluring in looks. The other, her back towards us, appears to be playing a flute-like instrument, and looks rather obese, to the point of almost being comical, her right breast laid upon a flat-topped rock. At their feet are three human skulls and others bones to indicate their graver intentions.

The Deposition (1876)

Scenes showing the taking down of Christ’s body from the cross after his crucifixion, as described in the Gospel of John Chapter 19:38-42, were popular in painting from the tenth century onwards. The key figures named in the biblical account are Joseph of Arimathea, who had arranged for his burial, and Nicodemus, who brought spices to help preserve the body in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Other figures who may appear include Saint John the Evangelist, who is sometimes shown supporting the Virgin Mary, and the three Marys: the Virgin Mary (Christ’s mother), Mary Magdalene, and Mary Salome.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), The Deposition (1876), tempera on panel, 160 cm x 250 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Böcklin largely follows convention in the figures in his painting of the Deposition. At the right background are the other two victims, still hanging on their crosses.

Christ’s body is being cradled by an elderly Joseph of Arimathea, in his rich clothing, while the Virgin Mary looks on, her head held in her hands, in grief. Nicodemus is seen at Christ’s feet, wrapping his body in linen strips in preparation for burial. At the left, Mary Magdalene is distraught, and being comforted by Saint John the Evangelist.

Where Böcklin departs from convention is in his composition. The great majority of depictions are centred on the lowering of Christ’s body from the cross, and use a portrait format. Böcklin opts for a linear array in landscape format, and the importance of translation of the body and burial preparations, rather than descent to earth. This is more orderly, and allows him to arrange the faces of those involved in an arc. Those faces bear some of the most studied expressions in any of Böcklin’s paintings.

The Island of the Dead

Between 1880 and 1886, Böcklin painted a total of five different versions of his most famous work, The Island (or Isle) of the Dead. Each shows a similar island, probably based in part on the English Cemetery in Florence, where his own baby daughter had been buried. Each shows the deceased being rowed across to the island, which calls on the classical myth of Charon, who rows the dead over the rivers Styx and Acheron to the underworld.

Island of the Dead (version 1) (1880)

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Island of the Dead (version 1) (1880), oil on canvas, 110.9 x 156.4 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

The first version shows the small boat just outside the harbour of a small rocky island which appears to be lined with mausoleums. The light is remarkable, seemingly a bright twighlight, against dark water and sky. However the direction of travel of the boat is ambiguous, as it may actually be moving away from the island and towards the viewer.

Island of the Dead (version 3) (1883)

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Island of the Dead (version 3) (1883), oil on panel, 80 x 150 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

The first two versions met with criticism. Böcklin changed the lighting and closed in on his motif, making it much clearer that the boat was entering the island’s tiny harbour. Although less dramatically lit, this adds clarity to the most important part of the painting.

Odysseus and Calypso (1883)

Calypso was, in Greek mythology, a nymph, the daughter of Atlas the Titan, who lived on the island of Ogygia. She attained fame in Homer’s Odyssey, in detaining Odysseus for seven years as her ‘immortal husband’. She enchants him with her singing as she weaves with a golden shuttle on her loom. However, Odysseus realises that he wants to be re-united with his wife Penelope, and the gods finally release him.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Odysseus and Calypso (1883), oil on panel, 104 × 150 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Calypso is shown, in front of a cave on the beach, holding her lyre rather than weaving. Odysseus is at the far left, staring into the distance (although he faces away, so the actual direction of his gaze is not seen). He would appear to be homesick for Penelope, wishing that he was released from Calypso’s control. This is a stark image of a barren landscape and empty relationship.

Attack by Pirates (1886)

A recurrent theme among Böcklin’s paintings is of an Italianate villa by the sea, which started to appear in about 1871. Later in his career the villa suffers an attack by pirates.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Attack by Pirates (1886), oil on mahogany panel, 153 x 232 cm Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

From its origins low at the water’s edge, the villa is now seen high on the precipitous cliffs of a rocky island, joined to the mainland by a long viaduct. At dusk (or possibly dawn), the pirates attack from the sea, setting light to the villa, which casts an eerie red light against the black clouds.

I do not know whether Böcklin’s painting refers to any written narrative, or whether it is symbolic of his life or career at this stage, perhaps.

Odysseus and Polyphemus (1896)

In another episode in the Odyssey, Odysseus came across the Cyclops, in particular Polyphemus, a savage one-eyed man-eating giant who spent his days tending his flock of sheep. After Polyphemus has devoured several of Odysseus’ crew, Odysseus gets Polyphemus drunk. Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, and the latter replies Οὖτις (Outis, Greek for nobody). Once the giant has fallen into a stupor, Odysseus drives a hardened stake into the Cyclops’ one eye, blinding him. The following morning, Odysseus and his men tie themselves to the undersides of the sheep in Polyphemus’ flock so that he cannot feel them escaping.

Recognising that he has lost his captives, Polyphemus calls out for help from the other Cyclops, telling them that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him. The other Cyclops therefore do not come to his aid. As Odysseus and his crew sail off into the dawn, they deride the blind Polyphemus. The giant prays to his father, Poseidon (Neptune), for revenge, and throws huge rocks towards the fleeing ship.

This moment in the Odyssey was also painted by JMW Turner in his Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829).

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Odysseus and Polyphemus (1896), oil on panel, 66 × 150 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Böcklin shows Odysseus’ crew rowing frantically out to sea, through large waves, as Polyphemus prepares to hurl a huge rock at them from the shore. His detailed realism and tight composition make this one of Böcklin’s most dramatic and active paintings. This is accomplished without facial expressions, and with very simple use of body language.

Nessus and Deianira (1898)

Deianira (which has various spellings, and means destroyer of men) was the mythical wife of Heracles. She needed to be ferried across the river Euenos, a task for which the wild centaur Nessus offered himself. However Nessus attempted to kidnap or rape Deianira while ferrying her, and she fought back. Heracles came to her aid, and shot a poisoned arrow at Nessus. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianira to take some of his blood, as when it was mixed with olive oil it would ensure that Heracles would never be unfaithful.

Deianira kept some of this potion to hand, and Heracles fathered illegitimate children across much of Greece. When she was afraid that Heracles would leave her, she applied some of the potion to Heracles’ lion-skin shirt. When Heracles next put it on, it burned him so badly that he threw himself onto a funeral pyre; Deianira committed suicide in despair.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Nessus and Deianira (1898), oil on panel, 104 x 150 cm, Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, Kaiserslautern, Germany.

In one of Böcklin’s final narrative paintings, he kept quite well to the classical story. Nessus and Deianira are fighting, Nessus clearly having the upper hand. But at the right, Heracles has stuck a poisoned spear into Nessus, and his toxic blood is already pouring out of him. Böcklin supports this with clear facial expressions and body language which meet expections.


Böcklin’s mythological paintings became increasingly narrative during his career. During the 1870s, most were fairly static in form, but in the 1880s they became more active, and timed closer to the climax of the action. As a result several of his narrative paintings were innovative and highly effective.

I am not sure which might have symbolic meaning or even allegorical content, and the shortage of information about his works leaves uncertainty over the reading of his paintings.