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You are watching: Self-portrait with death playing the fiddle




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Arnold Böcklin


Old national Gallery


Bodestraße 1-3Berlin, Germany

Arty truth

The photo of a skeleton play a musical instrument was popularized in a medieval creative allegory referred to as the danse macabre (which means “dance of death”), a legacy likely gift invoked on purpose in this self-portrait.

Rumor has it that Böcklin contained the number of death in this self-portrait just as one afterthought, including it once a friend asked what he appeared to be listening to based upon the far-off expression in his eyes.


More around Self-portrait with Fiddling Death

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Canvas, Oil paint
H: 75 x W: 61 centimeter
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Self-portrait, Vanitas
Catalog Number
AI 633
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Sierra Moreno


According come one account, the number of fatality looming over Arnold Böcklin’s shoulder (and may be distracting him from his work by playing some screechy music top top a one-stringed violin right in his ear—ouch!) was contained in this self-portrait just as one afterthought. 

Upon see the incomplete painting, the story goes, a girlfriend asked Böcklin what he was listening to based on the distant expression in his eyes and also the slim tilt come his head. In response, that naturally included a skeletal reminder of his very own mortality right into the background, thus transforming the painting right into a contribution to the longstanding legacy of memento mori artworks which such macabre characters tend come populate. The single-stringed violin says that Böcklin’s time is running out; the others have actually presumably all snapped, and also Böcklin is, it would certainly appear, listening to the sound of his own fatality creeping closer come him together the music playing in his ear grows an ext frantic and also dissonant v each broken string. It’s feasible that this photo of the last string is supposed to be an allusion come the Fates that Greek mythology, who (as us all well understand from Disney’s "Hercules") had actually the power to conveniently kill mortals by cut a subject representing their lifespan. And Böcklin to be a huge nerd because that Greek mythology, for this reason this analysis seems entirely plausible.

Böcklin’s an option to depict his skeleton companion play a violin may additionally be a referral to a late medieval subgenre of the memento mori called the danse macabre (meaning, delightfully, the “dance the death”), which the would have actually been exposed to either in the woodcuts the Hans Holbein the Younger or painted ~ above the wall surfaces of a cemetery in his hometown Basel, Switzerland, where few of the earliest examples of the theme can be spotted. The basic message of the danse is that all people, regardless of their station in life, must ultimately die. An uplifting message, i suppose, if your life isn’t every that good to start with, and also Böcklin’s was pretty rocky, to say the least, also if the didn"t live during the time that the plague.

He absolutely would have been well-acquainted with fatality by the moment he painted this self-portrait, his very first fiancée having actually died before they had a possibility to get married, and also his eventual wife giving birth to fourteen children, five of whom passed away in childhood. Possibly the reason behind his old girlfriend Death’s intimate proximity at his shoulder (and Böcklin being completely cool v this overlook for his personal space) is his consistent awareness the they might meet at any type of moment. He no seem all that fazed by the idea, though. Instead, that casually leans earlier to hear what fatality has to tell him, his rigid pensively directed far from the viewer together he listens closely to its song, together if death is for him a reliable confidante or advisor offering him some moral feedback on his job-related rather 보다 something to be feared. Böcklin would attract upon this depicted familiarity with death again eight year later, in his iconic 1880 paint The Island the the Dead.

Böcklin creates an illusion that naturalness by having his painted twin look away from the viewer, providing himself the appearance of having actually just paused for a minute in his occupational to hear to fatality at his shoulder, evidently unaware that we deserve to see him. What he’s painting, wherein he’s looking, and what precisely fatality is whispering in his ear are all preserved from us, reinforcing a voyeuristic place of the viewer and also suggesting the this self-portrait no posed (although, that course, the was). And also yet yes something an extremely self-conscious about including a memento mori in your own self-portrait. Böcklin might well have been poking fun at himself and the genre of self-portraiture at huge in this choice; possibly he had actually a real minute like this one when he paused in his work to consider why that felt the need to maintain his own photo in paints and, laughing in ~ his very own foolishness, added in the figure of death at last minute, a tongue-in-cheek answer to his own question. In a very modern-day and self-reflexive move, Böcklin seems to have used this chance to discuss the are afraid that lies, at the very least on part level, behind every self-portrait an artist creates—namely, that of fatality sneaking increase behind to sweep away the living body a portrait looks for to preserve.

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In this way, the paint could also be review as a clever take on vanitas, another subgenre that memento mori meant to remind among the transience that earthly pleasures, commonly taking the kind of a still life. Yet here Böcklin is play on the double-meaning had within the term; “vain” (derived native the Latin vanitas) can mean futile, valueless, or no worthy of pursuit, the feeling in which that is usually supposed in the vanitas still life. However if you’re vain, that can also mean the you have actually an overly-high opinion that yourself, and Böcklin, by painting his own image into some variation of a vanitas still life, seems to be having a good hearty laugh at himself for being so big-headed that he would actually desire to paint his own portrait. Such a comic approach was pretty on-brand for Böcklin. He to be primarily known for his irreverent take it on scenes from classic mythology, a kind of in-joke he had with self which made him exceptionally popular v 19th century europe audiences, who by that allude had obtained pretty exhausted of see the exact same scenes illustrated in the very same decorous means over and also over again. 

Although frequently labelled as a Symbolist and highly prominent on the Surrealists of the complying with century (Max ernst in particular), Böcklin largely wanted to march to his own beat. He invested a far-reaching portion that his life life in Rome studying Renaissance and Baroque art, and also as a result was much more or much less unaware of all the glowing new contemporary art motions that to be unfolding during his lifetime. This at the very least partially defines all the memento mori symbolism, which was at that trendiest in the beforehand 17th century. He may have actually been a small late come that certain party, but, just like all his reworkings of old themes, still managed to bring a dash that his signature Böcklin feeling to it, making something totally new.