Isle of the Dead

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Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead

Isle of the Dead (or Island of the Dead; Toteninsel in the original German) is one of the best known paintings by Swiss-German artist Arnold Böcklin, as well as a piece of music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a film by Val Lewton and a novel by Roger Zelazny.

Contents

The painting

Böcklin produced several different versions of the painting. All versions depict an oarsman and a standing white-clad figure in a small boat crossing an expanse of dark water towards a rocky island. In the boat is an object usually taken to be a coffin. The white-clad figure is often taken to be Charon, and the water analogous to the Acheron. Böcklin himself provided neither public explanation as to the meaning of the painting nor the title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

The first version of the painting, which is currently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, was created in 1880 on a request by Marie Berna, whose husband had recently died. Other versions are now located in collections in Basel, Berlin and Leipzig:

  1. 1880, oil on board, 73,7 x 121,9cm New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reisinger Fund, since 1926.
  2. 1880, oil on canvas, 111 x 115cm Basel, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, since 1920.
  3. 1883, oil on board, 80 x 150cm, Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, since 1980.
  4. 1884, oil on copper, 81 x 151cm, Lugano, Sammlung Schlss Rohoncz, deleted in Rotterdam during WWII.
  5. 1886, 80 x 150cm, Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste.

The music

Rachmaninoff's piece of orchestral music inspired by the painting is a symphonic poem written in 1909. He uses a recurring figure in 5/8 time to depict what may be the rowing of the oarsman or the movement of the water, and, as in several other works by him, quotes the dies irae plainchant in allusion to death.

The film

One of Val Lewton's horror films for RKO, the 1945 movie had a script inspired by the paintings, and starred Boris Karloff.

The novel

Zelazny's novel dates from 1969. It was nominated for the Nebula Award in that year.

External links

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