Island of the Dead

Böcklin, Arnold

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on wood

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Jun-05-2012


A small stone island sits in the middle of a body of water. No other land is visible. Within the apparently naturally formed stonewalls that constitute the island’s perimeter, vestiges of man-made dwellings are apparent. On the left-hand embankment, the front of what appears to be a white house is visible albeit only slightly. On the other side of the island, doorways or windows have been carved out of the rock itself. Below the front most door some white paint has been added, as though to signify the fading presence of man’s creations on this island.

The center of the island opens up as a bay of sorts. In the middle of the bay and island, large vertical trees similar in appearance to Cyprus trees stretch all the way up past the stone and to the very top of the painting. Nothing of the island is visible through the dense trees. One solitary boat with two passengers makes its way into the middle of the bay. One passenger controls the oars while the other stands erect, as though a statue, and is completely white. At the front of the boat sits a box that looks like a coffin.


This painting was remade five times between the years 1880-86, and so five different versions exist. The initial impulse for the picture was a request made by Marie Berna, whose husband had died, for Böcklin to depict her bereavement thematically.

Island of the Dead invites contemplation on the mystery of what lies beyond death. The boatman is reminiscent of Charon and the waters bring to mind the ancient river Styx, across which Greeks believed the souls of their dead traveled to Hades.

The stones and trees make for an interesting comparison – both are symbols of the natural world, the former dead and cold, the latter alive yet silent. The apparent lack of human life on the island is made poignant by the inferable knowledge that once upon a time, the stone ruins must have housed living men. Now, however, like death, the island is an isolated, isolating, and lonesome place. See Cole’s Voyage of Life: Childhood/Youth/Manhood/Old Age for similar setting, theme, and a Christian interpretation of death and resurrection (annotated this database)

Primary Source

Arnold Bocklin, by Heinrich Alfred Schmid at Project Gutenberg