The Isle of the Dead

Arnold Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead is a hugely popular image. Freud and Lenin both had reproductions of the painting on their wall, and Hitler had an original hanging in the bunker where he ended his life. But The Isle of the Dead is not just one painting; the artist produced five versions between 1880 and 1886. According to an excellent article in the Independent, 'The solemn mystery of this land- and seascape arises from its symmetry and uprightness and containment. Several "unknown effects" – empty water, enclosing rock, impenetrable wood – are fused. It's like a Russian doll, obscurity within obscurity ... It's a solid embodiment of the beyond, a lonely tomb-altar in the sea'.

It goes on: 'On the other hand, The Isle of the Dead must be the most straightfaced picture ever made. It is a world of unrelieved symbolism. Everything in it is dedicated to conjuring up a single, sombre atmosphere'.



The image has inspired numerous other works – not just paintings, but films, literature and music, too. Some of these are detailed in this fascinating piece on



Below is a recording of Sergey Rachmaninov's "symphonic poem", The Isle of the Dead, op.29, performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

You can purchase a print of the image here.