Arnold Bocklin
Biography and Paintings of Swiss Symbolist Painter.

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Medusa (1878)
Private Collection.

Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901)


Dusseldorf Academy
Influenced by French Painters
Rome and Classicism
Mature Paintings
Island of the Dead

Island of the Dead (1886)
Museum of Modern Art, Leipzig.

See: Art: Definition and Meaning.


One of the leading modern artists from Switzerland, the painter Arnold Bocklin was influenced by Romanticism and Classicism but was associated primarily with Symbolism. Along with Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) and Max Klinger (1857-1920), he ranks as one of the most outstanding Swiss/German symbolist artists of his time. Bocklin's time living in Rome exposed him to the influence of Classical and Renaissance art. Originally a landscape painter, Bocklin gradually moved towards figurative compositions, which contained dream-like figures and mythical references. It was not however until his early 50s, that he first started to paint the atmospheric paintings with which he is most associated today. Bocklin's best known painting is the haunting iconic image Island of the Dead, which he produced in five different versions between 1880 and 1886. See Island of the Dead (1880, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). For more background to Bocklin's painting, see: Post-Impressionism in Germany (c.1880-1910).

Paintings by Arnold Bocklin
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Arnold Bocklin, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.


Dusseldorf Academy

Bocklin was born in Basel in 1827 and studied painting at the Dusseldorf Academy under the German landscape artist Johann Schirmer (1807-63), who painted in the manner of French classical artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The Dusseldorf school of painting was known for its colourful detailed landscapes, often with religious themes. Leading artists at the school practised plein air painting, and favoured a limited, subdued colour palette. The school was part of the German Romantic movement and other prominent members were Karl Friedrich Lessing (1808-80), Oswald Achenbach (1827-1905) and Hans Fredrik Gude (1825-1903). Through its association with the German painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and the Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham (1811-79), the school had a significant influence on the development of the American Hudson River School. Not surprisingly therefore, Bocklin's first paintings were dramatic landscape scenes of the Swiss Alps. These early works were rich in German Romanticism, which valued humour as well as beauty. See also: German Art, 19th Century.


Influenced by French Painters

In 1848, during a visit to Paris, Bocklin studied the work of the pre-Impressionist landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). Corot was a key member of the Barbizon school and a pivotal figure in 19th century plein-air painting. Bocklin was also impressed by the work of Thomas Couture (1815-79), the French history painter and works by the great Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). On his return to Switzerland, Bocklin was introduced to the historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) who secured commissions for him in Italy. This was to be a turning point in Bocklin's artistic development.

Rome and Classicism

In 1850 Bocklin travelled to Rome and was immediately impressed with the warmth of the Italian sunlight. He remained in Rome for seven years, discovering the delights of the antiquities, sculptures and paintings of the Renaissance. In Rome he was inspired by the stories of ancient mythology, which fired his imagination. Between 1850 and 1857 Bocklin combined classical landscape with mythical figures from Antiquity - as in his Pan Among the Rushes (1857, Neue Pinakothek, Munich). In 1857, Bocklin returned with a wife and two children to Germany, and then in 1859 moved to Munich where he was granted a professorship of the Weimar Art School. He was still deeply affected by his years in Rome, and continued to be influenced by the works of Italian artists including Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520). In 1862, he abandoned his teaching career and travelled to Rome and Naples, before returning to Basel.


In Basel, Bocklin established himself as a successful portrait painter: see for instance, his Portrait of the Actress Jenny Janauschek (1861, Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). He also produced several murals: see for example, the staircase of the Kunstmuseum Basel, completed between 1868-70. The mixture of various influences can be seen in his portrait art. For instance, the colourful effects of Pompeian art can be glimpsed in his Portrait of Angela Bocklin as a Muse (1863, Kunstmuseum, Basel); and Renaissance influence is evident in his Self-Portrait of 1873 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg) and Anacreon's Muse (1873, Aargauer Kunsthaus). In 1874 he met the German painter Hans von Marees in Florence, who was also interested in depicting figures in pseudo-Classical landscape settings. Gradually Bocklin ceased oil painting, and began experimenting with tempera and other media in order to create a paint surface free of brushstrokes.

Mature Paintings

By the 1880s Bocklin was financially independent, having secured a contract with the Berlin art dealer Fritz Gurlitt. The artist's mature work is reminiscent of French Symbolist paintings, such as those by Gustave Moreau (1826-98) - an example being Bocklin's Couple in the Tuscan Landscape (1878, Nationalgalerie, Berlin). His style at this point also shows influences of Old Masters of the Northern Renaissance, including Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Salomon van Ruysdael (1602-70). However, Bocklin's mature landscapes are his most impressive, being both moody and atmospheric. These characteristics are best seen in his famous series, The Island of the Dead.

Island of the Dead

Bocklin produced several versions of Island of the Dead between 1880 and 1886. Printed versions became popular in Central Europe throughout the 20th century. In essence, the work depicts a rocky little island, viewed at night across an expanse of water. A small rowing boat carrying an upright white figure is seen arriving at the island, which is dominated by cypress trees, traditionally associated with graveyards. An atmosphere of death and gloom permeates the painting. Bocklin himself never gave any explanation or interpretation of it, saying only that it was 'a dream picture'. The title was invented by his art dealer, Gurlitt. Bocklin had simply described it a 'picture for dreaming about'. Versions of the painting can be found in the Kunstmuseum, Basel; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Staatliche Museen, Berlin; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig. Sadly one of the paintings was destroyed in the bombing of Rotterdam during World War II.


Bocklin died in 1901, his reputation eclipsed somewhat by the progress of modern art. However, like his contemporary Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) who was reappraised by 1920s expressionists, Bocklin too was rediscovered in the 20th century by the schools of Expressionism and Surrealism, and in particular by artists like Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) - see, for instance his enigmatic The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection) - as well as Max Ernst (1891-1976), and Salvador Dali (1904-89). Currently interpreted as a symbolist painter, Bocklin is seen as moving beyond simple replication of natural scenes, in the manner of many realists and Impressionists. Instead he focused on subjects of dreams and the imagination, much like other symbolist artists including the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), the dream-like painter and lithographer Odilon Redon (1840-1916) and the Swiss allegorical painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918).

Allegorical/Historical Paintings By Bocklin

Mary Magdalene Grieving Over the Body of Christ (1867) Kunstmuseum Basel.
Nymph and Satyr (1871) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Venus Rising from the Waters (1872) Stifung Kunsthaus, Heylshof.
Playing in the Waves (1883) Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
Island of the Dead (1880, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Paintings by Arnold Bocklin hang in some of the best art museums in Europe and America.

• For more biographies of Swiss artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of major art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about Symbolism, see: Homepage.

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