Art world remembers Swiss forerunner of symbolism

"The Adventurer" (1882) by Arnold Böcklin (picture: Kunst und Ausstellungshalle Deutschland)

This week is the 100th anniversary of the death of Arnold Böcklin, the influential Swiss artist who was one of the forerunners of symbolism.

This content was published on January 16, 2001

Born the son of a textile merchant in Basel, Böcklin is regarded as one of the most influential painters of the 19th century. Among the artists who have acknowledged his influence on their work are Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico.

At the age of 18 Böcklin left Basel to study at the art academy in Düsseldorf. Although he was frequently to return to Switzerland, most of his working life was spent abroad in such cities as Brussels, Paris, Munich, Florence and Rome - where he married the daughter of a papal guard. Several of their children died in infancy, and of the six who survived, three also became painters.

Italy's light and atmosphere of antiquity were decisive in his early development, as can be seen from the centaurs and naiads and other mythological figures in his paintings.

It was not until he was 50 that he began to paint the powerful and often macabre atmospheric works now associated with his name. Among these are five versions of "The Isle of the Dead" (1880-86), which he referred to as "a tranquil place". This series inspired a symphonic poem by the composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

But Böcklin's legacy is not confined to the symbolism in his dream-like paintings. At one stage he actually drew up plans for a flying machine and began negotiations - which came to nothing - for its manufacture.

To mark the anniversary of Böcklin's death, Basel's fine arts museum (Kunstmuseum) will exhibit 90 of his paintings charting his development from late romanticism to symbolism. The exhibition opens on May 5.

by Richard Dawson

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Weekly top stories

Keep up to date with the best stories from SWI on a range of topics, straight into your mailbox.


The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.