Encountering Böcklin

Alongside Hans Holbein the Younger, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) is one of the ‘patron saints’ of the Kunstmuseum Basel. The museum holds over 90 paintings and sculptures by the artist, making it the most important collection of his works in the world. In the late 19th century, Böcklin, who was born in Basel, achieved enormous fame in the German-speaking lands and is now seen as one of the key exponents of Symbolism.

Even during his lifetime, Böcklin was a controversial figure. Some saw him as an innovator, whilst others (such as the influential art critic, Julius Meier-Graefe) accused him of being a reactionary force, impeding progress in the arts.

Configured in twelve groupings, works by Böcklin are juxtaposed with those of his predecessors, contemporaries and unexpectedly like-minded artists, allowing key biographical, stylistic and thematic aspects of his oeuvre to emerge. The mood shifts between satire, an evocative melancholy and solemn sobriety.

The still unfathomable quality in his work, its irreconcilable counterposing of a wish for innovation with an adherence to tradition, reveals Böcklin to have been a true product of the Fin de Siècle, rich in inconsistencies as it was.

Portraying the self, portraying another

(Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait in the studio, 1893, and Adolf von Hildebrand, Portrait of the Painter Arnold Böcklin, 1898)

Towards the end of the 19th century, Böcklin enjoyed great acclaim as an artist in the German-speaking lands, as reflected in these two portraits of him from the 1890s. In his self-portrait, painted for the Kunstmuseum Basel, the 66-year-old painter depicted himself as a fashionable, self-confident figure, surrounded by the trappings of his wealth. There is no trace of the stroke he had recently suffered. When, however, a few years later, Adolf von Hildebrand executed his bust in bronze of the famous painter from Basel, a commission for the Berlin Nationalgalerie, a different aspect of his long-standing artist friend emerged.

Although photography had long since been invented by this time, in painting particularly the discrepancy between self-perception and perception from the vantage point of another could become particularly evident. This assured self-portrait of the ‘Prince of Painters’, who here depicted himself in the act of painting his own portrait, showing him to be a master of his own image, is placed in conjunction with Hildebrand’s poignant portrayal of a pensive man marked by age. If it is the case that a portrait’s most basic function is to give visual form to someone who is not present, then the questions arise here: who was Böcklin and how many sides to him were there?

Revisiting ancient myths I

(Jean-François de Troy, Diana and Actaeon, 1734, and Arnold Böcklin, Diana's Hunt, 1862)

In his Metamorphoses, the Roman poet, Ovid, produced one of the most popular works of mythology of all time. His tales of transformation have offered a rich source of imagery for countless artists over the centuries. In the story of Diana and Actaeon, a young huntsman is punished horribly for stealing a forbidden look at the goddess bathing. He is transformed into a deer and is torn apart by his own dogs.

There are almost 130 years between these two works, in which Jean François de Troy and Böcklin painted different scenes from the tale. However, their depictions are worlds apart. De Troy drew on the story of the bathing goddess, using it as an opportunity to depict her nymphs in glowing colours and precise lines. Naked or clothed only in lightweight drapery, he arranged them within a luxurious, elegant scene, whilst the deer itself literally became a marginal figure in the image.

Böcklin also shifted the narrative into the background in his painting. The main role is played by a panoramic thicket, against which three figures are seen chasing after the deer, which has already fallen prey to the dogs. Böcklin’s unconventional treatment of the noble themes of Classical education, already evident in this early key work, was seen as modern by his contemporaries – and it was not always met with enthusiasm.

Revisiting ancient myths II

(Frank Buchser, Odysseus and Calypso, 1872, and Arnold Böcklin, Odysseus and Calypso, 1882)

In Homer’s Odyssey, the tale is told of how Odysseus came to be stranded on an island belonging to the nymph, Calypso, due to a storm. She takes him in and entices him with a promise of immortality. However, Odysseus does not return her love and yearns to return to his wife Penelope. Calypso detains him for seven years, until Zeus orders his release.

With ten years between their paintings, Frank Buchser and Böcklin both devoted themselves to depicting this timeless story of unrequited love. Buchser conveyed a sense of drama in his use of light and painterly expression. In the almost Expressionistic right-hand half of the image, forms dissolve into colour fields. Nonetheless, Odysseus’s yearning and Calypso’s desperation appear rather formulaic in the exaggerated nature of their bodily poses.

Whereas Buchser embodied the romantic drama in the form of Cupid turning away from the scene, Böcklin emphasised the loneliness and mental pain of its protagonists by isolating the figures formally and in his use of colour. Statue-like, inward-looking and wrapped in a cool blue, Odysseus has turned his back on the lascivious nymph seated on a flaming red cloth. The intense luminosity of the isolated colours, which contemporaries found “garish” and “loud”, is one of the progressive aspects in Böcklin’s painted oeuvre.

The Böcklin-Burckhardt Connection

(Artur Joseph Wilhelm Volkmann, Portrait of Professor Jacob Burckhardt , 1899, and Arnold Böcklin, Study of the Sixth Mask at the Garden Front of the Kunsthalle Basel, 1871)

Böcklin seethed with anger. Yet again, the Kunstmuseum’s Board of Trustees had criticised his designs for frescoes for the former museum building at Augustinergasse. Even his long-standing friend, Jacob Burckhardt, who had been a witness at his marriage to Angela Pascucci in 1853 and had since risen in the world to become a famous professor of art history, had advised him to revise the frescoes. In the end, Böcklin completed the wall paintings in 1870 according to his own ideas and added frescoes of two medallions with faces depicting “dogged” and “stupid” critics. However, this did not mean that his anger had subsided at all; instead, it transformed into caustic mockery. When the artist presented his six sandstone mascarons for the garden façade of the Kunsthalle Basel the following year, it was hard to miss the fact that they were caricatures of members of the Board of Trustees. Burckhardt himself appears as a “disdainful critic” with a grotesquely distorted face and receding forehead. The great Renaissance researcher, who had played a defining role in Böcklin’s reception of antiquity, would now be immortalised in the carnival city of Basel in this entirely un-Classical mascaron.

It seems likely that Burckhardt would have preferred his sculpted portrait by Artur Volkmann of 1899. Like Early Renaissance busts, Burckhardt’s head appears autocratic in its bearing and his gown is similar to cloaks worn by the ancients. Nonetheless, he may well have noticed that Volkmann’s almost mannered and outdated Classicism came with its own trace of irony. The professor did not live to see it, however, since he died two years before it was completed.

Literature in paint

(Joseph Anton Koch, Macbeth and the Witches, 1829/1830, and Arnold Böcklin, Petrarch at the Spring of Vaucluse , 1867)

Literature and painting have been closely related since ancient times. In the 19th century, however, the literary works of more recent authors enjoyed great popularity amongst artists, emerging as sources of imagery alongside traditional mythological themes.

Shakespeare’s plays had been widely disseminated in German-speaking regions since the 18th century. In this instance, Joseph Anton Koch, an Austrian artist, based in Rome, chose as his subject a scene from Macbeth.

Böcklin can be seen to combine literature with literary history in this depiction of Petrarch, the Renaissance poet, whose own life was the stuff of legend. Böcklin shows the great author standing at the literal source of his inspiration. It was here, at the Fontaine de Vaucluse, that Petrarch conceived his famous poem to his beloved Laura: “Clear, sweet fresh water where she, the only one who seemed woman to me, rested her beautiful limbs.”

Entirely in keeping with the Romantic conception of nature, for both artists, landscape was a resonant space, in which to place their visual narratives. At the moment of the fateful meeting between the general, Macbeth, and the Witches, the surrounding landscape is shown to be wild and tempestuous, whereas in Böcklin’s image, it seems to offer Petrarch protection. The dream-like, luxuriant setting symbolises the poet’s withdrawal from the world and the creative inspiration he found there.

Picturing children

(Anselm Feuerbach, At the Beach, Fisher Maiden in Antium, 1870, and Hans von Marées, The Child, 1870, and Arnold Böcklin, Vita somnium breve [Life a Short Dream], 1888)

A generation younger than Joseph Anton Koch, Böcklin, Hans von Marées and Anselm Feuerbach all belonged to the group of artists known as the Deutschrömer (German Romans) – artists and writers from German-speaking lands, who chose to pursue their artistic careers in Rome by studying in-depth the art of Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance. This display focuses on the depiction by these three men of small children placed in various settings.

Feuerbach opted to represent a distant, idealised image of the mother-child relationship in a classicising manner on an impressively large canvas. In its grave solemnity, his picture is comparable with his mythological scenes. In Böcklin’s work, the child stands for early life. Adopting a variation on the popular motif of the ‘staircase of life’, which had been used since the 16th century to symbolise human life in a series of ascending and descending steps, the artist created his own idiosyncratic allegory on transience. Conversely, Marées’s image of a child is neither idealised nor symbolic in intent. In a rather grown-up posture, the baby, sitting on the ground, gazes out of the picture between the figures of adults and horses towering above him. Applying paint in a sketchy manner, Marées lends an unfinished quality to his work – symbolic perhaps of the transformative nature of childhood?

Symbolist spectres

(Arnold Böcklin, The Plague, 1898, and Albert Welti, Riders in the Mist, 1896)

Inventing a fantasy realm was more important to Albert Welti and Böcklin than representing observable nature. From 1888 until 1891, Welti, 35 years younger than Böcklin, was an apprentice in the older painter’s studio in Zurich. In 1895, he moved to Munich with the aim of leaving behind him the influence of his teacher. “After two years, I felt a very strong urge again to do something without someone else objecting to it, to give vent to this great spirit inside me, and to bring it to fruition,” Welti wrote in retrospect. The way in which he depicted a weather phenomenon in Symbolist fashion shows how close his art still was to Böcklin’s. In a wild fight in the sky, the Riders in the Mist rampage around an overcast mountain top in a pallid light.

As Welti had done with the swirling fog, Böcklin personified the plague, which, at the time he was making his image, was raging throughout India. The nightmarish figure of Black Death astride the dragon, sweeping through the streets of a town, was based on design drawings dated 1876 on the theme of cholera. Böcklin’s preoccupation with dreaded diseases, death and mortality may in part have had personal meaning for him. His own life had been threatened by typhus and cholera on several occasions and they had stalked his large family.

Landscapes of the soul

(Arnold Böcklin, Island of the Dead (First Version), 1880, and Max Ernst, The Large Forest, 1927)

The almost rapturous veneration, with which Böcklin’s art was met in the German-speaking lands at the turn of the century, rested largely on the popularity of his most famous motif, the Island of the Dead. This Symbolist icon hit a contemporary nerve and print reproductions of it could be found in many middle-class drawing rooms at the Fin de Siècle.

This encounter between two powerful works by visionary painters throws into high relief the parallels between the images. Indeed, Max Ernst’s Surrealist painting may even be seen as a reinterpretation of the Island of the Dead. He isolated his composition from the picture margin, and his tall, slender trees rear up against a dark sky. The enormous, ring-shaped celestial body, seen rising behind Ernst’s forest, casts a pallid light over the landscape, creating a sense of enigma. In doing so, it echoes the eerie light in Böcklin’s painting: a figure cloaked in white, seen from the rear, and a shrouded coffin on a barque.

These images of sites of liminal experience – sombre, mysterious, and otherworldly – bear witness to the powerful influence that Böcklin’s enigmatic landscapes of the soul exerted upon the imagination of the following generations of Surrealist artists.

Horse and rider

(Arnold Böcklin, Der Kampf auf der Brücke, 1889, and Edgar Degas, Injured Jockey, um 1896/98)

The motif of the horse and rider has been part and parcel of art history since ancient times. The animal and its master create a powerful symbiosis, whether alone or in a group, as an equestrian monument or the massing of an awe-inspiring army. One example of the potent force of this motif can be seen in Böcklin’s war-like scene depicting a skirmish on a bridge, for which the artist drew inspiration from Peter Paul Rubens’s Battle of the Amazons (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). A bestial mob, naked and wild, gallops into to scene from the left – in an ambush against which the civilised forces to the right of the picture are unable to defend themselves.

Degas’s Injured Jockey draws its disturbing visual power from the violent sundering of the traditional unity of horse and rider. A heavy fall of this nature is prefigured in depictions of the Biblical story of the Road to Damascus, in which Saul is shown on the ground having fallen from his horse in shock at seeing the divine light coming from heaven. Degas’s thoroughly secular fall makes no reference, however, to any kind of a conversion or new start, as the Bible story had done. Its protagonist is a fallen man, a symbol of failure. The story behind the making of the picture intriguingly parallels its motif. For over 30 years, the artist had wrestled to convey on canvas the subject of a jockey who had fallen from his horse (Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, National Gallery of Art, Washington). This painting, Injured Jockey, represented a new start for him.

Aquatic games

(Arnold Böcklin, Play of the Nereides, 1886, and Félix Valloton, Three Women and One Little Girl Playing in the Water, 1907)

In Böcklin’s painting, the sea nymphs splash about, whoop with joy, do somersaults and frolic in the raging surf. In Vallotton’s picture, on the other hand, the figures seem distant, sober and as if frozen in time.

Both painters chose to address the rich traditional theme of female bathers. In the late 19th century, like many artists before him (see, for instance, Jean-François de Troy’s Diana and Actaeon), Böcklin opted to cloak his subject in the veil of mythology. Nonetheless, he was deemed, by many of his contemporaries, to have turned a sublime motif into something grotesque. His nymphs are sturdy, overexcited and noisy, and they bring a smile to the face of viewers, rather than awakening their voyeuristic impulses. The degree to which his critics saw the comical, ironic aspect of his work as disquieting can also be seen in the fact that this part of his oeuvre tended to be ignored in favour of his emotive, melancholic paintings.

Vallotton exhibited his female nudes, who play gently in the slate-grey water, at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1907, entitling his painting, Baigneuses. Their sculptural bodies, far removed from any form of idealisation or mythologising, appear to be bathed in light rather than water.

Casting a long shadow

(Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Living, 1888, and Walter Kurt Wiemken, Life, 1935)

In order to step out of the long shadow cast by Böcklin, many painters from Basel decided that they needed to engage with the art of their great predecessor. For some it would prove to be a source of inspiration and, for others, a paralysing ball and chain.

Wiemken’s painting, Life, which dates from the Surrealist phase of his career in the mid-1930s, parallels Böcklin’s Island of Life at least in terms of its title and the prominent motif of motley figures in a circular dance. Instead of pleasant spring clouds and an Arcadian landscape, however, Wiemken’s world centres around death. Inside the body of the sphinx at the heart of the painting, he has inserted a rendering of Böcklin’s famous Island of the Dead. A skeleton emerges from it, seeming to have lassoed two figures, holding them in its malignant power.

This evil omen is echoed in other scenes like an execution and a burial. It may well be that Wiemken was expressing his gnawing fears of impending war by showing the world on the brink of catastrophe, just on the verge of spinning down the helter-skelter-like scaffolding.

The image is divided into strictly horizontal pictorial bands. In the upper section of the image, two disembodied hands – on a kind of Constructivist cloud – hold strings like puppet masters and direct world events straight down into the abyss.

Landscapes of the spiritual

(Arnold Böcklin, The Sacred Grove, 1882, and Cy Twombly, Study for Presence of a Myth, 1959)

It is perhaps unusual to see Böcklin and Cy Twombly as kindred spirits. However, their works share an idiosyncratic approach to ancient tradition. As well as making reference to specific mythological themes, they creatively distilled their subject matter to produce images evocative of antiquity – spaces of the sublime, realms of silent grandeur, landscapes of the spiritual. That both men found their Arcadias beyond their lands of birth, living until their deaths in Italy, only serves to emphasise the importance of Mediterranean culture for their work.

Böcklin’s sacral landscape, as seen in The Sacred Grove, is replete with Symbolist imagery. The sacrificial fire and the procession of priestly figures designate it as a site of ritual. Classical temple architecture can be seen between the trees, placing the sacred space within an advanced ancient civilisation. The figures clad in white symbolically embody the solemn mood of the painting.

Twombly’s abstract pictorial space is also strewn with symbols, evocative both of spiritual realms and cultural memory. Numerical sequences and written references to Delos, the Aegean island, birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and an important site of veneration of both gods, can both be found on the image’s white ground. Scribbles, typical of Twombly’s work, heighten the tension between text and image and may be read as non-specific traces of collective cultural production.

The worlds conceived by Böcklin and Twombly are radically different stylistically. Nonetheless, in parallel with one another, neither artist chose to employ narrative means in these works. Instead, they created images evoking moments of eternity, employing resonant, albeit disparate elements.


The texts to accompany this display of our collection are the result of a collaboration with student members of the ‘Blickweitungen’ study group, led by Dr Markus Rath, Department of Art History at the University of Basel: Magali Berberat, Flavia Domenighetti, Elena Eichenberger, Lisa Gianotti, Duco Hordijk, Angela Oliveri, Gabriele Pohlig, Juri Schmidhauser, Zoe Schwizer, Katharina Stavnicuk, Mirjam Strasser and Benno Weissenberger.

Editorial team: Claudia Blank, Dr Eva Reifert; Translation: Helen Shiner; Curator: Dr Eva Reifert; Curatorial assistant: Claudia Blank