Isle of the Dead (painting)

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Isle of the Dead: "Basel" version, 1880
Isle of the Dead: "New York" version, 1880
Isle of the Dead: Third version, 1883
Isle of the Dead: Fourth version, 1884 (black-and-white photograph)
Isle of the Dead: Fifth version, 1886

Isle of the Dead (German: Die Toteninsel) is the best-known painting of Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901). Prints were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century—Vladimir Nabokov observed in his 1936 novel Despair that they could be "found in every Berlin home".[1]

Böcklin produced several different versions of the painting between 1880 and 1901, which today are exhibited in Basel, New York City, Berlin and Leipzig.

Description and meaning[edit]

All versions of Isle of the Dead depict a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of dark water. A small rowing boat is just arriving at a water gate and seawall on shore.[2] An oarsman maneuvers the boat from the stern. In the bow, facing the gate, is a standing figure clad entirely in white. Just ahead of the figure is a white, festooned object commonly interpreted as a coffin. The tiny islet is dominated by a dense grove of tall, dark cypress trees—associated by long-standing tradition with cemeteries and mourning—which is closely hemmed in by precipitous cliffs. Furthering the funerary theme are what appear to be sepulchral portals and windows on the rock faces.

Böcklin himself provided no public explanation as to the meaning of the painting, though he did describe it as "a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door".[3][4] The title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883, was not specified by Böcklin, though it does derive from a phrase in an 1880 letter he sent to the painting's original commissioner.[5] Not knowing the history of the early versions of the painting (see below), many observers have interpreted the oarsman as representing the boatman Charon, who ferried souls to the underworld in Greek mythology. The water would then be either the River Styx or the River Acheron, and his white-clad passenger a recently deceased soul transiting to the afterlife.

Origins and inspiration[edit]

English Cemetery, Florence
Greek island Pontikonisi, near Corfu, was a possible inspiration for the painting
Montenegrin island Saint George near Perast, is another likely contender as the inspiration for the painting

Isle of the Dead evokes, in part, the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy, where the first three versions were painted. The cemetery was close to Böcklin's studio and was also where his infant daughter Maria was buried. (In all, Böcklin lost 8 of his 14 children.)

The model for the rocky islet was perhaps Pontikonisi, a small, lush island near Corfu, which is adorned with a small chapel amid a cypress grove,[6] perhaps in combination with the mysterious rocky island of Strombolicchio near the famous volcano Stromboli, Sicily. (Another less likely candidate is the island of Ponza in the Tyrrhenian Sea.)


Böcklin completed the first version of the painting in May 1880 for his patron Alexander Günther, but kept it himself. In April 1880, while the painting was in progress, Böcklin's Florence studio had been visited by Marie Berna, née Christ (widow of financier Dr. Georg von Berna (1836–1865) and soon-to-be wife of the German politician Waldemar, Count of Oriola (1854–1910)). She was struck by the first version of this "dream image" (now in the Kunstmuseum Basel), which sat half completed on the easel, so Böcklin painted a smaller version on wood for her (now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City). At Berna's request, he added the coffin and female figure, in allusion to her husband's death from diphtheria years earlier. Subsequently, he added these elements to the earlier painting. He called these works Die Gräberinsel ("Tomb Island").[7] (Sometimes the "Basel" version is credited as the first one, sometimes the "New York".) It was acquired by the Gottfried Keller-Stiftung in 1920.[8]

The third version was painted in 1883 for Böcklin's dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin's own initials: "A.B." (In 1933, this version was put up for sale, and a noted Böcklin admirer Adolf Hitler acquired it. He hung it first at the Berghof in Obersalzberg and then, after 1940, in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. It is now at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.)

Financial imperatives resulted in a fourth version in 1884, which was ultimately acquired by the entrepreneur and art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen and hung at his Berliner Bank subsidiary. It was burned after a bomb attack during World War II and survives only as a black-and-white photograph.

A fifth version was commissioned in 1886 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig, where it still hangs.

Isle of Life, 1888

In the last year of his life Böcklin painted a sixth version with his son Carlo. It hangs in the Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg.

In 1888, Böcklin created a painting called Die Lebensinsel ("Isle of Life"). Probably intended as an antipole to the Isle of the Dead, it also shows a small island, but with all signs of joy and life. Together with the first version of the Isle of the Dead, this painting is part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel.


  1. May 1880—Oil on canvas; 111 × 155 cm; Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel.
  2. June 1880—Oil on board; 74 × 122 cm; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reisinger Fund, New York.
  3. 1883—Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm; Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
  4. 1884—Oil on copper; 81 × 151 cm; destroyed in Berlin during World War II.
  5. 1886—Oil on board; 80 × 150 cm; Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.


The painting has attracted a wide variety of admirers. Freud kept a reproduction in his office; Lenin had one above his bed; Hitler bought one of the originals. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that reproductions of the painting could be “found in every Berlin home”.[9]

Works inspired by Isle of the Dead[edit]



  • At the OpenArt 2022 exhibit in Örebro, Sweden, a fifteen metre long and seven metre high mixed-media sculpture by artist Henrik Jonsson was exhibited. The sculpture is based upon Böcklin's paintings.[12]



  • August Strindberg's play The Ghost Sonata (1907) ends with the image of Isle of the Dead accompanied by melancholy music. It was one of Strindberg's favourite pictures.




  • Böcklin's painting was used in season 5 episode 3 of Pretty Little Liars ("Surfing the Aftershocks"), mysteriously affecting one of the main characters.
  • In the manga and anime series Kuroshitsuji, is shown a place called "Island of Death", described as a sanctuary for demons. It is also the designated area to commence a formal duel between individuals of the said race.
  • The painting is featured in the Netflix comedy anime series Neo Yokio, in which the characters briefly magically enter the painting itself.


  • In J. G. Ballard's 1966 novel The Crystal World, Böcklin's second version of the painting is invoked to describe the gloom of the opening scene at Port Matarre.
  • Roger Zelazny used the picture as an inspiration for the meeting place of two mythological beings (one of them the alter-ego of the protagonist, Francis Sandow) in his novel Isle of the Dead (1969).[10] In-universe, Sandow references the painting as he recollects having created the world where it lies.
  • Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles (1995–1997) associates Dorset's Isle of Portland with the painting's isle. It is described as a place of internal exile and damnation. The causeway that almost links the real-life island to the mainland was supposed to be guarded to keep the dead (including the criminally insane) from crossing the Fleet and escaping back into Britain.
  • Graphic novel Ile des morts (text: Thomas Mosdi, drawings: Guillaume Sorel) has the pictures playing a key role in its gothic, Lovecraftian story.
  • Gerhard Meier's 1979 novel Isle of the Dead (Toteninsel) references Böcklin's painting.


Classical composers[edit]

Pop music[edit]

  • The Swedish neoclassical band Arcana used an image of Isle of the Dead on the cover of their debut album Dark Age of Reason (1996).
  • An album by Harald Blüchel was named after the painting – Die Toteninsel (Zauberberg-Trilogie Teil 1) (2006). The third version of the painting is shown on the cover of this album.
  • The heavy metal band Atlantean Kodex used Die Toteninsel (Version III) as a cover for their first full-length album, The Golden Bough (October 2010).
  • American songwriter and singer Rykarda Parasol wrote her song "Island of the Dead (Oh Mi, Oh My)" for the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum's exhibition Dreams of nature (2012), where the fifth version of the painting was on show. The song, together with Rachmaninoff's piece, was possible to listen to while watching the painting.[21] The song is on Parasol's 2013 album Against the Sun.[22]
  • French blackgaze band Alcest recorded a song, "L'Île Des Morts," inspired by the paintings, for their album Spiritual Instinct, released October 25, 2019.
  • The Spanish/American rock band Alfonso Cronopio Trio (also known as A.C.T.) led by Alfonso Cronopio (founder of the Spanish 80s hardcore band TDeK) released the song "Pagando al barquero" in 2015. The song itself as well as the music video, are inspired in the Die Toteninsel painting.
  • Flowers by Hana Hope for the Fate Grand/Order Memorial Movie has a depiction of the titular isle as part of the intro.

Video games[edit]

The German survival horror video game "SIGNALIS" by rose-engine studio references all versions of the painting[23] several times, as it plays a crucial role in understanding the relationship between the main character and her lover.

In a promotional video for the Japanese mobile role-playing game "Fate/Grand Order", a depiction of the Isle of the Dead can be seen alongside Artoria Pendragon.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1936; English translations 1937, 1965), Despair, p. 56.
  2. ^ That the boaters are arriving at, and not departing from, the island is an assumption. The oarsman is positioned to row away from the shore, but in some versions the ripples of the boat's wake suggest that they are moving forward. Hubert, Locher (2004), "Arnold Böcklin: Die Toteninsel. Traumbild des 19. Jahrhunderts"; In: Kunsthistorische Arbeitsblätter [Translation: "Arnold Böcklin: The Isle of the Dead; Dream Image of the 19th Century"; In: Art History Worksheets], Zeitschrift für Studium und Hochschulkontakt; Issue 7/8, p. 71.
  3. ^ Culshaw, John (1949), Rachmaninov: The Man and his Music, p. 73.
  4. ^ To Marie Berna he wrote on 29 June 1880: "Am letzten Mittwoch ist das Bild 'Die Gräberinsel' an sie abgegangen. Sie werden sich hineinträumen können in die Welt der Schatten, bis sie den leisen lauen Hauch zu fühlen glauben, den das Meer kräuselt. Bis sie Scheu haben werden die feierliche Stille durch ein lautes Wort zu stören."
  5. ^ Upon completing Alexander Günther’s version, Böcklin sent him a letter saying that "finally with the Toteninsel finished I think it will make quite the impression" ("Endlich ist die Toteninsel soweit fertig, dass ich glaube, sie werde einigermaßen den Eindruck machen".)
  6. ^ Harrison, Max (2005), Rachmaninoff, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 159.
  7. ^ The artist apparently used this title for the rest his life, as indicated by a congratulatory telegram on the occasion of the Count's 70th birthday (1897) in which the artist refers to "die glücklichen Besitzer der Gräberinsel" ("the lucky owner of 'Tomb Island'").
  8. ^ "Gottfried Keller-Stiftung: Ausleihe und Reproduktionen" (in German). Archived from the original on 13 December 2014. Retrieved 5 December 2014.
  9. ^ Essay by Alastair Macaulay, December 2021, accessed 25 January 2022.
  10. ^ a b c d e f John Coulthart (28 October 2011). "A Picture to Dream Over: The Isle of the Dead". Retrieved 25 July 2016.
  11. ^ "Bocklins VI Version". Arthur Digital Museum. Retrieved 16 January 2021.
  12. ^ "Död ö". Retrieved 2022-11-04.
  13. ^ Essay by Alastair Macaulay, December 2021, accessed 25 January 2022.
  14. ^ Jayne Pilling, ed. (29 May 2012). "On Craig Welch's How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels". Animating the Unconscious: Desire, Sexuality, and Animation. Wallflower Press. ISBN 978-0231161992. Retrieved 17 July 2012.
  15. ^ The Tales of Hoffmann matte.
  16. ^ The Tales of Hoffmann set.
  17. ^ Wayne Haag (23 May 2017). "Alien Covenant – Cathedral". Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  18. ^ Tarasti, Eero (2012). Semiotics of Classical Music: How Mozart, Brahms and Wagner Talk to Us. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., KG. p. 385. ISBN 978-1614511540.
  19. ^ Tarasti, Eero (2012). Semiotics of Classical Music: How Mozart, Brahms and Wagner Talk to Us. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., KG. p. 385. ISBN 978-1614511540.
  20. ^ List of Compositions at Archived 2016-01-13 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ "Van Gogh Museum Annual Report 2012". Retrieved 27 December 2016.
  22. ^ Parasol, Rykarda. "Against the Sun".
  23. ^ Rodrigues, M.D. "Review | "Signalis" is an artful throwback to old-school survival horror". Washington Post. Retrieved 29 October 2022.
  24. ^ 「Fate/Grand Order」Memorial Movie 2023, retrieved 2023-08-02
  • Eva Perón en la isla de los muertos
  • Morris, Gary (2009). Action!: Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran (en inglés). Anthem Press. p. 216.

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