Arnold Bocklin – Swiss Master of ‘Symbolic’ Display of Religious Themes

Kimberly R. Cammack

Arnold Bocklin was one of the most venerated and influential artists of the late nineteenth century. He propagated ‘Symbolism’ as an art form and was famous for his mysterious, ingenious, and creative interpretation of many mythological allegories.

Arnold Bocklin was born on October 16, 1827, in Basel, Switzerland. After completing his initial education, he attended a drawing school at Düsseldorf during 1845-47. Here, artist Johann Wilhelm Schirmer trained him on landscape painting. He depicted Swiss Alps in all its glory for a few years until 1848, when February and June revolutions broke out in France. The hatred and despair in France affected Bocklin deeply, which even was evident in his paintings, increasingly ominous and gloomy in essence. In 1850, his Rome trip again interested him in landscape painting for capturing color and beauty.

Arnold got married in Rome in 1853 to Angela Rosa Lorenza Pascucci, with whom he eventually returned to Basel. From 1857, Arnold Bocklin’s paintings started shedding traditional beliefs, with an increased portrayal of mythological figures in his paintings, reflecting his tilt towards ‘Symbolism.’ This shift was a result of the influence of ‘Renaissance,’ ‘Classicism,’ and ‘Mediterranean’ Art. The debut paining of this ‘Romantic,’ Pre-Raphaelite trend was “Pan Pursuing Syrinx” (1857), depicting the antithesis of a woman’s spirituality and a man’s sensuality. His other famous paintings during this time were “Nymph and Satyr” (1858), “Heroic Landscape” (1858), and “Sappho” (1859). All these paintings were heavily appreciated in Switzerland and Rome.

In 1860, Arnold’s fame fetched him a coveted teaching position at the Academy of Art in Weimar. In subsequent years, his art became bolder and darker, reflecting the contrasting spiritualities of man & woman, religious themes, and symbolic representation of death. After two years, the artist again returned to Rome and explored the fresco art. In 1866, when he was residing at Bale, he was commissioned work for a fresco and for building a marble staircase in the Museum of Basle. In 1871, he lived at Munich (Germany), followed by his stay at Hottingen (Switzerland) in 1885.

Arnold Bocklin had to go through a personal tragedy of losing his young infant Maria, whom he had to bury at the English Cemetery in Florence. This tragedy had a profound effect on Bocklin and this was evident through the creation of his painting “Isle of the Dead.” The painting depicted a mysterious sadness and desolation it. This work shows a massive rocky islet amidst a large expanse of water. It categorically depicts a woman and her husband’s coffin behind her. This coarse depiction of death apparently was Bocklin’s tribute to his dead daughter. The other paintings of this period were “Pieta,” “Ulysses and Calypso,” “Prometheus,” “Sacred Grove,” and “The Holy Wood.”

In his last years, Arnold Bocklin resided in his villa at San Domenico, near Fiesole. He died on January 16, 1901, in San Domenico. His works have gathered high praises from other painters and young artists, because of his ingenious talent in depicting mythological figures and interpreting the different religious themes in his paintings. His passion for art knew no bounds. He even influenced Surrealists, such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. He even once quoted, “Just as it is poetry’s task to express feelings, painting must provoke them too. A picture must give the spectator as much food for thought as a poem and must make the same kind of impression as a piece of music…”

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