Isle of the Dead (painting)  

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Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin: "Basel" version, 1880
Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin: "Basel" version, 1880

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Isle of the Dead is a well known painting by Arnold Böcklin. 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.

Adolf Hitler, in particular, was obsessed by the picture (he possessed the Berlin version). Freud, Lenin, and Clemenceau had prints in their offices.

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.

Prints of the work were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century—Vladimir Nabokov observed in his novel Despair that they were to be "found in every Berlin home."


Description and meaning

All versions of Isle of the Dead depict a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of dark water. A small rowboat is just arriving at a water gate and seawall on shore. An oarsman maneuvers the boat from the stern. In the bow, facing the gate, is a standing figure clad entirely in white. Just behind 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 penetrating 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.” 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. 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 conducted 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.

Complete list of versions

  1. (1880) - Oil on board, 74 x 122 cm The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reisinger Fund, New York.
  2. (1880) - Oil on canvas, 111 x 115 cm Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel.
  3. (1883) - Oil on board, 80 x 150 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
  4. (1884) - Oil on copper, 81 x 151 cm, destroyed in Rotterdam during World War II.
  5. (1886) 80 x 150 cm, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.

Works inspired by Isle of the Dead



  • 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 favorite pictures.


  • Val Lewton's 1945 horror film Isle of the Dead was inspired by the painting which serves as a backdrop to the picture's title sequence. In an earlier film, I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Lewton had also alluded to it, placing it quite visibly on a wall in one scene. Lewton had been fascinated and terrified by a replica as a child.
  • The painting has inspired two National Film Board of Canada (NFB) animated shorts. It is the explicit backdrop for Norman McLaren's short animated film A Little Phantasy on a 19th-century Painting (1946). More recently, animator Craig Welch has stated that both the painting and McLaren's film were inspirations for his 1996 short, How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels.
  • The Quay Brothers' 2005 film The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is said to be inspired by the painting, as well as by the book The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. Some of the scenery in the film (shot in a studio in Leipzig) is particularly reminiscent of the Leipzig version of the painting.


  • Heinrich Mann's 1903 novel Die Göttinnen oder Die drei Romane der Herzogin von Assy (The Goddesses, or The Three Novels of the Duchess of Assy) uses the painting's imagery without explicitly mentioning it.
  • In Vladimir Nabokov's Mary (1970; English translation of Mashen'ka [Машенька, 1926]) it is mentioned that a copy of The Isle of the Dead hangs in the room occupied by Klara.
  • In Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1952 novella Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and His Hangman), the painting is mentioned and functions as a harbinger of doom.
  • 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 antagonists in his novel Isle of the Dead (1969).
  • A French graphic novel in five tomes, L'île des morts, was published on the Böcklin painting's theme with a strong influence of writer H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos by the editor Vents d'Ouest at Issy-les-Moulineaux, in 1996.
  • The Italian illustrator Milo Manara also depict this painting in one of his graphic novels (Au revoir les étoiles) in which the main character revives classical paintings. [2]
  • Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles (1995-97) 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 (a bit of literary conjecture in this historical fiction, not archaeological fact).
  • In 1998 the Italian writer Franco Ricciardello won the Urania Award with a novel (Ai Margini del Caos, Aux frontières du chaos) whose plot revolves around a mystery involving the different versions of the painting.
  • The German novelist Thomas Lehr (b. 1957) mentioned the painting as hanging in a hospital room in his Nabokov's Cat (1999).
  • In 2008, the painting is used as one of the dreamlike setting for the comic novel Sognare, forse morire, Volume 118 of the Series Julia. Written by Giancarlo Berardi and Maurizio Mantero, Graphic by Laura Zuccheri.
  • In Marek S. Huberath's fantasy short story The Balsam of Long Farewell, an island similar to Böcklin's is shown as the place where the dead go before leaving this world forever. The story also features a painter, Bòcline, obviously an italianized version of the name Böcklin.

Cover art

  • The 5th version of the painting serves as cover art for German writer Lena Falkenhagen's novel Die Boroninsel (Boron Island).
  • An album by Harald Blüchel was named after the painting. The third version of the painting is shown on the cover of this album.


  • The Island of the Dead (1890) is a symphonic poem by Romantic composer Heinrich Schülz-Beuthen evoking the painting.
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff also composed a symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (1909), inspired by a black-and-white print of the painting. He said that had he seen the color original, he likely would not have written the music.
  • One of the four tone poems of German composer Max Reger’s Vier Tondichtungen nach Böcklin (Op 128, 1913) is “Die Totensel” (No. 3), based on the painting. (The same year, Reger’s disciple Fritz Lubrich, Junior [1888-1971] composed Drei Romantische Tonstücke nach Böcklinschen Bildern (Three Romantic Tonstücke after Böcklin’s Pictures; Op 37), an organ work of which No. 3 is also The Dead Island.)
  • The Swedish neoclassical band Arcana used an image of Isle of the Dead on the cover of their debut album Dark Age of Reason.
  • An album by Harald Blüchel was named after the painting. The third version of the painting is shown on the cover of this album.


  • From the anime Kuroshitsuji (黒執事, Black Butler) by Yana Toboso, Sebastian Michaelis (セバスチャン・ミカエリス, Sebasuchan Mikaerisu) ferried the soul of Ciel Phantomhive (シエル・ファントムハイヴ, Shieru Fantomuhaivu) to the Isle of the Dead. Sebastian hands Ciel Tanaka's diary, in which Tanaka details the former Lord Phantomhive's knowledge of his impending death. Sebastian carrying Ciel enters the isle and there Ciel calmly waits for Sebastian to take his soul.

Video/Card games

  • A downloadable map for the computer game Aliens versus Predator 2 is based on the Isle of the Dead.
  • The painting appears as a location in the Pocket PC graphical adventure game, Fade.
  • The first version of the painting is prominently featured in D. Alexander Gregory's rendition of Titania's Song, from the collectable card game Magic: The Gathering

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Isle of the Dead (painting)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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