Arnold Böcklin: The Pioneer of European Symbolism

Arnold Böcklin is considered by art historians as one of the colossal figures of 19th-century art and a pioneer of European Symbolism.

Feb 7, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art

arnold bocklin pioneer european symbolism


As the original and independent artist he was, Arnold Böcklin and his art isn’t easily categorized. His art includes traditional romantic landscapes, mythological creatures of classical painting, 19th-century scientific developments, humor, and the German soul. A controversial figure even during his life, Böcklin causes ruptures in the art history world even to this day. Although he started with a few followers and patrons, by the end of his life, every house in the German-speaking world had an etching of one of his masterpieces. Island of the Dead and Villa over the Sea were some of the favorites among the European public. These works influenced artists throughout Europe in a way that Symbolism as a whole cannot be talked about without considering his work.


Early Life of Arnold Böcklin 

arnold bocklin landscape with castle ruins
Landscape with Castle Ruins by Arnold Böcklin, 1847, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Arnold Böcklin was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1827, and was named after a character from Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell. Kick-starting a life of travel, Böcklin left Switzerland at an early age to study painting at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art from 1845 to 1847. His professors at the time were the landscape painter Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and the Romantic painter Carl Friedrich Lessing. At the same time, he was introduced to the Nazarene movement, a group of young German painters from the early 19th century who paved the way for anti-academic art.


Most of Böcklin’s early work from this period consists of paintings of the Swiss Alps, influenced by his tutors at the Academy. The influence of Caspar David Friedrich is seen in Böcklin’s use of dramatic effects of shadow and color to bring out the expressive character of the landscape. Paintings such as the Landscape with Castle Ruins are the basis for the transformation of the concepts of Romanticism into Symbolism’s visual language, culminating in Böcklin’s Island of the Dead.


In 1848, Arnold Böcklin traveled to Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris to continue his artistic training. During these travels, he came to be inspired by Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. While most of his contemporaries looked fondly on the Revolutions in 1848, Böcklin was horrified by the bloodshed of the June Days, spending much time watching the transportation of prisoners to their execution. Böcklin returned home from France, where he served his mandatory time in the Swiss Army between 1848 and 1849. By the beginning of 1850, Böcklin was already feeling that Basel was stifling, so he moved on again. This time, he chose the city of Rome.

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Discovering the Ancients in Italy

arnold bocklin tavern in ancient rome painting
A Tavern in Ancient Rome by Arnold Böcklin, 1867, via Kunsthalle Karlsruhe


One of Arnold Böcklin’s first and most important decisions as an independent artist was traveling to Rome. Among the ancient ruins of the city and religious iconography of the Renaissance and the Baroque, he was moving away from the artistic ideals of his youth. Böcklin never meant to renew the tradition of an ancient culture but to use it as inspiration for something new. The images and statues he had seen in Rome helped him create his own mythological world, infused with personal observations and contemporary scientific discoveries.


From the middle of the 1860s onward, he absorbed himself in ancient mythology, which formed the thematic core of Renaissance art, identifying the morals and principles of these narratives. According to one of his students, the impressions that Raphael’s Vatican murals and Pompeian wall paintings in Rome made on Böcklin had driven him away from his previous path. Böcklin’s newfound appreciation for myth manifested itself in his mature paintings of the 1860s-70s. His work is unique in its reinterpretation of classical mythology through a personal, even comic lens.


During his early visit to Rome, he met Angela Pascucci, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Papal Guard, whom he married in 1853. Angela was his life partner and muse, inspiring many of Böcklin’s female nudes. Their marriage was unsettling for both of their families since they came from separate religious backgrounds, Böcklin being Protestant and Angela Catholic. The marriage was also beset with other problems, like the deaths of their five (out of 14) children and Arnold’s ill health.


Commercial Success in the North

arnold bocklin island of the dead painting
Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, 1883, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the artist continually changed cities. Before eventually returning to Italy, Arnold Böcklin had lived in Munich, Basel, Zürich, and Weimar, establishing himself in the German-speaking world. Böcklin’s popularity increased due to the circulation of etchings of his paintings by the Berlin-based art dealer Fritz Gurlitt. These etchings, created on commission by the graphic artist Max Klinger, were circulated widely amongst the German middle classes. For two years, Böcklin even took up a professorship at the Weimar Academy on the recommendation of his friend and colleague Franz von Lenbach.


Though he was an academically trained painter and a professor, Böcklin refused to accept the traditional artistic practice. To his contemporaries, Böcklin was grouped together with Anselm Feuerbach and Hans von Marees as a Deutschrömer (translation: German Romans).


Deutschrömer were German-speaking painters and sculptors active in Italy. This perception, along with his poverty, gave Böcklin an aura of a haunted and isolated artist. To the critics, his art was turning away from nature’s surface appearance and historical trivialities to the inner imagination and dreams of the German people.


Seemingly, he was on a good path to becoming a successful artist and earning the title of a prince-painter. Despite this, Böcklin was dismayed by being a professor in the service of the Grand Duke. To him, the ambition and hopes of artistic fame were idle. Flying away from the “art riff-raff,” as he called it, Böcklin eventually found his peace in Italy. From 1876, he spent his time in and near Florence, with only a short intermission between 1886 to 1892 in Zürich.


German Symbolism & Arnold Böcklin

arnold bocklin selfportrait with dead playing a fiddle
Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Arnold Böcklin, 1872, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Despite the difficulty in determining his art and defining it within any movement, by the end of the 19th century, Böcklin was regarded as the central figure of German Symbolism. The last few decades of the 19th century in Europe were marked by all-encompassing instability and resignation in a materialistic environment.


Constantly growing industrialization and modernization trends caused pessimism in certain intellectual circles and a need for escapism into an imaginary world of transcendent images. Arnold Böcklin’s Symbolist artwork found its place in this new melancholy-filled world.


The best understanding of German Symbolism, in general, can be deciphered by examining his Self-portrait with Death Playing a Fiddle from 1872. This painting is not only a look into the artist’s mind but a materialization of the core of the German soul of the 19th century. The artist depicted himself realistically, standing at his easel as a skeleton with a violin approaches him. Here, the unreal is depicted in a way that makes it seem just as real as the artist’s figure. Art historians have termed this, probably the commonest method of symbolistic alienation, “naturalistic permutation.” In the present case, this means that persons and objects rendered with fidelity to nature appear in a connection that is impossible in everyday reality.


The Cult of Arnold Böcklin

arnold bocklin selfportrait in the studio
Self-portrait in the Studio by Arnold Böcklin, 1893, via Kunstmuseum Basel


Arnold Böcklin’s activity did not decrease with age; rather, he continued painting almost till the last moments of his laborious life. His self-portrait, painted in 1893, represents a vigorous man with a grey beard and keen eyes, hiding away the health issues from which he was suffering.


Nearing the end of his life, Böcklin became the object of a veritable personality cult. Richard Muther in his History of Painting in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1894, celebrated him as the founder of a new, intensely yearned-for art. Similarly to Beatlemania, there was a Böcklin fever. He was placed in the pantheon of cultural heroes alongside Homer and Phidias, Shakespeare, Dürer, Goethe, and Wagner.


Böcklin’s status was recognized even in France, where Charles Saunier proclaimed him a genius. With fame came homages. In 1887, Johannes Brahms visited Böcklin in his Zürich studio, and in 1894, he received Grand Duke Carl Alexander von Sachsen-Weimar in his studio in Florence. On the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1897, retrospective exhibitions of his art were held in Berlin, Hamburg, and Basel.


Death & Legacy of Arnold Böcklin

adolf von hildebrand bust of arnold bocklin
Bust of Arnold Böcklin by Adolf von Hildebrand, 1898, via Neue Pinakothek, Munich


On 16 January 1901, Arnold Böcklin passed away in his home, Villa Bellagio, in the vicinity of Fiesole. He was buried at Camposanto agli Allori, the Protestant cemetery outside of Florence. The Italian newspapers at the time spoke proudly of his attachment to their country. Rightly so, as Italy played a crucial role in the Swiss artist’s personal and professional life. He was recognized as an artist of universal value, and his paintings were renowned as symbols of modern man.


During his life, Böcklin actively influenced a number of painters of a broadly Symbolist bent. After his death, the grotesque characteristics of his works became a point of fascination for many younger modern artists. Through them, Böcklin influenced the development of German Expressionism, and later French Surrealism, as well the works of painter Giorgio de Chirico.


Unlike these avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century, Böcklin’s abandonment of various conventions of academic painting was more accidental; it was just a result of his attempts to conflate various painting styles. He never considered himself a modern artist but an inheritor of the great tradition of post-Renaissance Art. The influence of Böcklin’s work went beyond visual arts, inspiring Romantic composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Jean Sibelius.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.