Isle of the Dead

Artists in all fields are inspired by each other.

One of the most famous examples of creativity enriching creativity involves, The Isle of the Dead.

Arnold Böcklin (Swiss Symbolist painter, 1827-1901)  painted five versions between 1880 and 1886.   All renderings depict  a rowboat arriving at a seawall.  In the bow, stands a figure clad in white.  

Böcklin would not elaborate on its meaning, only saying,  ” It is a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.”

Many have interpretated the white-clad figure as Charon, leading human souls into the Greek underworld.

File:Isola dei Morti IV (Bocklin).jpg

In 1907,  upon viewing the painting, Sergei Rachmaninoff began composing a tone poem in its name.  The work, now considered a classic of late Russian Romanticism, was finished the following year.

In 1945,  Val Lewton produced a classic horror film with the same title.  The script, written by Ardel Wray, was inspired by the painting, and involves a group of quarrantined islanders who begin to die, one by one.

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29 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You really know how to pick good books and stories!

  2. The third version of the painting has always resonated with me. I’ve never been sure why it appeals so much, but part of the mystery of the image must lie with the surrealism inherent in the image – the island is too small, the structures on it too large, the trees immense in comparison with the carved portions… it’s an enigma we’re not really meant to approach as a literal depiction.

    There is a (loose) description of the picture in one of my WIP’s as a character approaches a mysterious island, though I depicted it as the harbor of a much larger location filled with a vast cave system. It’s one of the few images I can keep returning to and find more things I like.

    The Boris Karloff film may contain one of his most underrated performances. He certainly manages to shed any hint of his early roles, and the atmosphere is superb straight through to the end – the casual dismissal of Lewton’s oeuvre by modern directors is undeserving. Extra kudos to the film for its’ (correct) use of mythology while so many contemporary films were mangling traditional tales.

  3. Amazing find. I love that piece by Rachmaninoff, but never knew it was inspired by a painting, nor did I ever know about that movie. It sounds fascinating, I’ll have to find a copy.

    I went to the Web to find other versions of the painting, and this one even includes a version done by H.R. Giger. Wild. I think I like the 1883 version the best.

  4. Where, my dear little genius, do you find the inspiration for these amazing posts? Is this something you ran across while doing research for one of your chacters? You make me want to go to the library and just pick up a random book and see what I find. The only problem with that idea is that libraries are so organized, I think finding a random may prove quite difficult. 🙂

  5. Thank you so much, Starting Over! 🙂

  6. Hey BigWords,

    I loved reading your reasons for preferring the third version. It made me look at it much more intensely.

    The film is fantasic- Karloff as well. I’m sorry that Lewton doesn’t get the respect he deserves.

  7. Heya DD,

    I think my fave is the original, although they’re all great.

    Thanks for that link. Giger’s rendition is very cool.

    The movie is definitely worth checking out.

  8. “dear little genius”

    Can I admit that I’d love to have that engraved on a coffee mug? 😉

    Thank you! Am so glad you enjoy the posts. I just read up on so much history (preferably off the beaten path). And one thing always leads to another. 🙂

  9. I do look forward to discovering some more art, poetry or literature from this blog

    This one would have to be one of my favourites so far 🙂

  10. Ooh, creeeepy.

  11. Glad you like the painting, Chazz! 🙂

  12. Creepy is good. 🙂

  13. Interesting use of white. In the West death is associated with the color black, but in the east death is associated with the color white and the North (Winter/Snow).

  14. That’s a great point, Ralfast. I wonder if he was thinking of that when he chose the white.

  15. Lord, that painting is wonderfully haunting. I could write a whole book around that image.

  16. Amy,

    And I bet you’d do a fantastic job with it!

  17. […] That was the comment I left on Tasha’s latest blog post. […]

  18. Maybe I’ll paint one for you. I’ll have to do a little thinking for the design…

  19. I’m not keen on the theory that the white-robed figure is Charon. Because that would mean the other figure in the boat is a human soul… who happens to be rowing.

    I’m sorry, but if I pay the ferryman an obol for passage, HE’S doing the rowing. Come on, I’ve just died and now I have to row?

    I say the figure is Gandalf the White instead.

  20. This would’ve made a much better ending to Lost than what it was.

  21. What a wonderful blog! I found it by clicking on the photo of Sarah in a coffin. I loved the quotes about acting for writers.

    Thank you!

  22. Riveting. . .

    I agree about the rowing/Charon discussion though. I wouldn’t think the human soul going over would be rowing. What strikes me is that the white isn’t so much a presence as an absence, but with form. . .

  23. I love reading about all the inspirations that feed artists and writers. I suppose with writing the trick is to ensure the influence doesn’t go into the territory of outright plagiarism. That painting always makes me feel so melancholy. Happy New Year to you. xx

  24. Jessica,

    I’d love to see your own version of it! If you paint one, you should think of showcasing it on your blog. 🙂

  25. Hee hee!

    Marian, you just totally cracked me up. Good point!

  26. Thank you so very much, Sally!

  27. Colby,

    I think I’m the rare specimen that actually loved the ending of Lost. Though I can understand why people felt cheated, too.

  28. Hi Josephine,

    Thank you so very much!

    Happy New Year to you as well! 🙂

  29. Hey Amy M,

    You and Marian make some good points regarding the Charon- or Charon-not figure. 🙂

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