Isle of the Dead

In 1880, Marie Berna had only been married a short time when her husband, Dr. George Berna died. To commemorate his life she visited the then unknown artist, Arnold Bocklin at his studio in Florence to commission a painting. He at first suggested he’d paint something to cheer her up, a happy scene. She preferred something more serene, as a theme of her bereavement.

Arnold Bocklin referred to his work as A Still Place, A Silent Island and Island of the Graves. He told Madame Berna, “Its influence is so quiet that one is startled if there is a knock at the door.” Later an art dealer by the name of Fritz Gurlitt provided the title, which it is now known by: Isle of the Dead.

We see a boatman rowing into the darkness. At the center a figure in white stands over a coffin draped in white. The stillness of the work has touched many over the years. In fact Adolf Hitler purchased one of Bocklin’s five versions. It was hanging on the wall of his study in the bunker he committed suicide in. Vladimir Lenin and Sigmund Freud had reproductions on their walls as well.

What is it about this painting that such infamous people in history have owned it? What in this work haunts the viewer? Sergei Rachmaninoff saw a black and white reproduction in a gallery in Paris in 1907 and immediately went to work on his own musical expression entitled, “Isle of the Dead”. Listen to this clip from his 1909 work while you study the painting, and hear the lapping waves against the ferryman’s boat as he enters the Isle of the Dead.

One must ask, are we left with the same peaceful stillness the artist intended? Or a foreboding since of doom?

This video doesn’t exist


Cross published at

Sources: Burroughs, Bryson. “The Island of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. (1926)21:146-48
Gurewitsch, Matthew “Music: A visual Requiem that inspired Rachmaninoff” in the New York Times: here
Works: Bocklin, Arnold, “Isle of the Dead”(1880)
Rachmaninoff, Sergei, “Isle of the Dead” Symphonic Poem, Op.29 Orchestral Musice (Slatkin)


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