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Bas​el​ 1827 - 1901 San Domenico

Arnold Böcklin was a major painter in the German-speaking world during the late nineteenth century who expressed his singular talent in iconoclastic explorations of myth and fantasy. Favoring unnatural, jarring colors, his works are fraught with tension in their disconcerting realism and discordant synthesis of emotions, subjects, references and genres — foreshadowing the joke of a Dadaist montage. Drawing upon a repertoire of nymphs, Christ, death, sea-serpents, forest, murders, saints, tritons, meadows, Greek gods, and a hybrid bestiary verging on the bizarre, Böcklin’s paintings typically show a dark, mystical primeval force of nature, counterbalanced in some cases, by his farcical wry humor.  While his artistic and aesthetic references were anchored in the Germanic world, Böcklin uniquely grafted the Teutonic spirit onto the Mediterranean ideal of Classical antiquity. In his finest works one sees a profound metaphysical dimension; indeed, Sigmund Freud, whose seminal theses on the ‘unconscious’ were a key influence on Symbolism and Surrealism, had a print of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead in his waiting room alongside another of Fuseli’s Nightmare

Swiss by birth, Böcklin lived most of his life between Germany and Italy. In his early career, Böcklin painted in the German Romantic landscape tradition of Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and soon after completing studies at the Düsseldorf Academy he left for Italy to complete his artistic education. His first major success came in 1859 when King Maximilian II of Bavaria acquired his Pan in the Reeds (1856–58; Neue Pinakothek, Munich) which had been on view at the Munich Kunstverein, after which Böcklin briefly took up an appointment at the Weimar Kunstschule in Munich. He rose to further prominence when Graf Adolf Friedrich Von Schack became a major patron, for whom he painted Triton and Nereid (1873–73; Schackgalerie, Munich), among the first of the mythological sea-creature paintings that became a staple in his oeuvre, as well as the Battle of the Centaurs based on Michelangelo’s unfinished 1492 marble relief. Attesting to his newfound confidence in this period is his Self-Portrait with Death Paying the Fiddle (1872; Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin) — a nod to Hans Holbein (1497-1543), his fellow Basel-born painter — which apparently inspired Gustav Mahler to insert a violin solo on an untuned violin into his Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900). Rubens was another important point of reference for Böcklin, who painted several pictures after the old master's spectacular showpieces in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt and the Battle of the Amazons. Returning once again to Italy, the decade between 1875 and 1884 saw Böcklin’s wider recognition, the flowering of a mystical style and the creation of some of his best-known works. Originally produced to induce a dream state, the elegiac Isle of the Dead — which he repeated five times between 1880–86 — marks a return to simpler compositions, both enigmatic and intense. The same monumentality and psychological power characterizes many of his works from the early 1880s, such as Odysseus and Calypso (1882; Kunstmuseum, Basel), also painted on panel which had become his preferred support. In Playing in the Waves (1883; Neue Pinakothek, Munich) one sees the full expression of his burlesque irreverence and play on grand Classical allusions, which remain a dominant theme in his late works. 

Held in high esteem during his lifetime, Böcklin was admired by the proto-Surrealist painters of the 1910s, especially Giorgio di Chirico (1888–1978) and Max Ernst (1891–1976), who helped to resurrect Böcklin’s fame outside central Europe. However, for a large part of the twentieth century his reputation was tarnished by Hitler’s infatuation with Bocklin’s perceived Teutonic nationalism. In recent years, Böcklin’s contribution to modernism has been re-evaluated and he is now seen as the forerunner of a distinctively German modernism characterized by irony and black humor, connected to Emile Nolde (1867–1959), and more obviously the Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artists Hannah Höch (1889–1978) and George Grosz (1893–1959).


Top Auction Results for Arnold Böcklin

Die Nacht
Sold for 1,179,00 CHF ($971,649)
Zurich, Christie’s, 1 December 2008, Swiss Art, lot 95

Ulysse et Polyphème
Sold for €409,000 ($523,151)
Paris, Christie’s, 23 February 2009, Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé, lot 89

Am Waldrand
Sold for €191,300 ($261,303)
Vienna, Dorotheum, 11 October 2011, Gemälde des 19. Jahrhunderts, lot 58

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