Continuing with this cheery seasonal theme, here is the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. This painting was originally commissioned by a young widow who “wanted something to dream by“. It enjoyed an enormous vogue in reproduction, becoming, I suppose, the late nineteenth-century German equivalent of Tretchikoff’s Green Girl or Athena’s Tennis Girl. The playwright Max Halbe commented “Between 1885 and 1900 no good middle-class household could be without reproductions of Bocklin’s paintings” and later the phenomenon was also noted by characters in novels by Nabokov set in Germany between the wars.
The painting attracted celebrity admirers too (from all shades of the political spectrum) – both Freud and Lenin had reproductions on their walls and the original of this version (the third of five) was purloined by Adolf Hitler for his personal contemplation.
Whatever you think of this painting, I do find that, once seen, it does somehow worm its way into one’s head in the way that a song (however irritating) or a poem sometimes does. I begin to imagine a resemblance to it in the most unlikely places, for instance, the disused lavatories at Grace Road –
or even the approach to this house at the end of my street –