Arnold Böcklin’s Symbolic Self-Portrait

Memento Mori

Arnold Böcklin, a Swiss painter known for pioneering symbolism, a style from the late 19th century that moved away from reality, used colors, shapes, and pictures to show strong feelings and deep ideas. He painted themes like death, myths, fantasy, and nature, creating a special way of showing things. Other artists of his time and after were also influenced by his unique style.

A Painting that Makes Us Think About Life

Among Böcklin’s masterpieces, “Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle,” was finished in 1872 when he was 45 years old.

Arnold Böcklin’s Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
Arnold Böcklin’s Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle

The painting shows Böcklin in his art studio, holding a palette and brush. Behind him, there’s a picture of Death, a skeleton, playing a violin. The difference between the lively artist and the serious Death is strong. The warm colors in the front and the cool colors in the back also make it interesting. This painting could tell us that Böcklin understood that people don’t live forever and that his art would stay even after he was gone.

Stoic Idea in the Painting

Böcklin’s self-portrait connects with a Stoic idea called Memento Mori, which means “remember you will die.” This idea tells us to not waste time and not to worry about things we can’t control. The Stoics, old philosophers, said we can only control what we think and do. They taught us that we should live sensibly and morally. They also thought death is natural and we should face it with courage.

Böcklin’s idea of showing himself with Death isn’t new. He got the idea from an older painting by Hans Holbein the Younger from around 1533. In that painting, Death points to an hourglass, showing how time goes by and how we all die someday. But Böcklin changed it and used a violin instead of the hourglass. He wanted to show that Death is not only a reminder but also a friend and inspiration for an artist. The violin also shows how music can talk to everyone, even after they die.

Different Ways to Understand the Painting

Böcklin’s self-portrait follows a Stoic way of looking at death – to see it as a friend, not an enemy. Stoics believed that death is part of how things work, so we should accept it and not be afraid.

But not everyone sees the painting the same way. Some people think the violin means vanity and emptiness because it makes short-lived music. Others say the violin is about Böcklin’s love for music because he was a musician too. Also, different ideas about death exist in other philosophies and religions. Buddhism, for example, thinks death is a way to end suffering and be free from being born again. In Christianity, death is seen as a way to be with God forever.

Böcklin’s self-portrait is not just about him and death. It also shows how art fits in society. When he made this painting, he lived in Munich and had a good reputation with artists, showing his art at Kunstverein München. However, some traditional critics didn’t like his unique style and themes. Böcklin’s painting tells them that he is not scared of death and that he’ll always be true to his artistic vision.

“Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle” is still known today as one of Böcklin’s best works. There are two of these paintings, one in Berlin and one in Basel. Many people visit them because they’re curious about the hidden meanings.

The painting even inspired other artists, like Gustav Mahler, who loved it while he was composing his Fourth Symphony. This painting shows how creative Böcklin was, and also how brave he was in talking about something as big as death. It also shows that art and philosophy can go hand in hand. And it teaches us that Stoic ideas can help us live better lives now and be ready for the end when it comes.

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One thought on “Arnold Böcklin’s Symbolic Self-Portrait

  1. It’s not a violin Death’s playing, it’s a fiddle. The painter knew people would make the mistake since they are basically the same instrument and so much alike, so he included the name in the title. The only difference between them is the kind of music they play. It’s called violin when you play classical, serene, calm music with it that has a sense of gloom in it, but with a fiddle, energetic and happy folk songs are played. He consiously chose the the title, he was a musician, he would know. That is the contrast that makes this work an example of a symbolist painting; death playing a happy song. The historical background makes the work and its symbolism make more sense. The expression on the painter’s face isn’t of livelihood, but of bleakness. One would imagine Death being sad and gloomy while the living person is happy and content, not the other way around.

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