The art of the 19th century summarized realistic and academic aesthetical practices, suggested new methods of expression, techniques, and stories. The most revolutionary trends were impressionism and symbolism, which formed the basis for the development of the 20th century art. They disagreed with the academic canons, and claimed that the old masters were the only ones who understood the modernity. Claude Monet and Alfred Doblin were among those artists who tried to reload the art, thus proposed new ways of visual representation. Such works as Regatta at Sainte-Adresse (1867) by Claude Monet (Appendix 1) and Isle of the Dead (1880) by Alfred Böcklin (Appendix 1) depict two sides of human life – rest and mortality. Moreover, these two works represent two different spiritual dispositions of the end of the 19th century, including the separate bourgeois serenity and the psychological anxiety of a new coming world.
Comparing Regatta at Sainte-Adresse (1867) by Claude Monet and Isle of the Dead (1880) by Alfred Böcklin
Claude Monet painted people resting on the beach of a lake. On the left side, there are men and women watching the regattas. These people are not poor, as becomes clear from the look of their clothes. It also means that they have some free time for having a rest on the beach and watching this elite sport. Since the weather is sunny, women carry umbrellas, and men have binoculars for better observing. Accordingly, some boats are more visible, and some of them almost far away. Monet does not attempt to comply with the rules of symmetry, virtually throwing shapes on the shore. Nonetheless, he clearly holds horizon that divides the picture straight in half. However, it is important to convey the mood of a resting, a nice sunny day, and a lively atmosphere. The artist wants to impress the viewer with the weather. Therefore, Monet uses sketchy brushstrokes, paining the clothing of the figures: the women’s dresses are depicted with several strokes, and the suits of the men in the foreground are also painted with three of four sweeps.
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The artist highlights the sea and the waves with light and calm strokes, not paying attention to realism. For him, it is important to convey the mood and weather variability, rather than specific details. He also tries to give some details in the background. In this context, Monet uses subtle contours, causing clean paint strokes. Accordingly, Monet colors are very bright and sunny: there are many blue, turquoise, gray, white, and purple shades. However, there are no dark colors, so for Monet there are no shadows in the painting. Regatta at Sainte-Adresse is full of light and heat, as though Monet creates an atmosphere of celebration.Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand the viewpoint from which the image is observed. On the one hand, it is on the beach, so the viewer almost accedes to all these rich people, while observing the action. On the other hand, the observer can be in the sea, thus preparing for the voyage. Perhaps, Monet with this technique tries to attract the attention both to the resting people and to the regatta. In addition, the artist uses a complex manner in order to create a deep space, because the coastline goes beyond the horizon, and the boats are far away too. All of this creates the effect of relaxing atmosphere in a good day and joys of life.
Although the artist was not born on the coast of Normandy, he loved this place, and tried to convey all his past and present emotions through its depiction. It was a popular location for many French painters, especially impressionists. Accordingly, Regatta at Sainte-Adresse represents both impressionist movement of those times and historical place in Normandy. During this period, Monet even aspired to a strict construction of the painting, as it is clearly defined and carefully calibrated in composition. Figures, boats, and sea give the impression of a strange rigidity of time. The Monet’s irony is that the bourgeoisie did not want to see the reality around them, so they enjoyed the beach instead of preparing for the future. Nevertheless, this world is ending, so Monet fixes it on his canvases with some hidden hints. Sailing and fishing boats symbolize the variability of his world: the first ones are the new world of successful people, and the old brown boats belong to the people of the old age. Moreover, they also represent the internal state of the artist, in which there is neither confidence nor comfort. Since he experiences a great depression during the creation process, these simple fishing boats do not look as luxurious as yachts with white sails. His family moved to Le Havre when he was five years old, and Monet often had the opportunity to visit the coast and the nearby cliffs of Sainte-Adresse. In 1867, he left Paris for Sainte-Adresse to visit his aunt. In fact, he fled from his family and, most importantly, his pregnant mistress Camille Doncieu who refused to accompany Monet. Thus, he left only some details in this work, but they are so subtle that it is difficult to know the real psychological state of the artist.
Moreover, the painting represents his experiments with a variety of shimmering and bright colors, abstaining from the darkest brown and black colors inherent in earlier traditions of landscape. For the first time, Monet’s colored shadows and colors are available through the unrestrained, glowing spots of pure color. This picture also suggests the influence of Monet paintings on oriental art, common in France in the second half of the century due to the start of collecting the Japanese charts. The artist was an avid fan of Japanese art. For example, he opened the compositional effects of the Japanese woodcuts with sharp-edged perspective and dramatic compositions frame. In his declining years, he said to his the great-grandson Mortier that the artist should learn from the Japanese artists how to build a perspective. Thus, he tries to combine the free impressionist style of painting with structured cold Japanese art. From this time, most of his paintings start to be more controlled and well ordered, thereby he controls his emotional state.
Isle of the Dead (1880) by Alfred Böcklin has a completely different mood than Monet’s work. The painting depicts a huge mystical island in the ocean. There is also a boat with two figures: the first one controls the boat, and the second merely stands observing the view. Both are seen with their back turned to the audience, as Böcklin hides the information about these people. The whole scene is depicted in the dark, so it seems that it happens at night. However, the whole island seems glowing, as it becomes clear that the laws of physics do not work in this world. If Monet lines up his work asymmetrically, Böcklin builds the scene according to the basic rules of symmetry. The center of such is the boat with two figures, which divide the space vertically into two equal parts. Together, they are balanced with presence of strange trees and plants on the island. The artist depicts all these physical objects as real as geometrical rules of composition allow. Perhaps, this island is a burial, but there is no single answer, even though the scene is represented realistically. The artist does not accidentally place two figures in the center, as he clearly wants to show that they are the key elements of the plot. There is no chaos or randomness, but only the intention to convey the atmosphere of the netherworld.
The artist’s brushwork consists of clear and stable lines, because Alfred Böcklin tries to convey the inner reality as clearly as possible. Paradoxically, the world of the dead is similar to the living world because of the realistic manner of painting. The viewer can even see the flowers, faded grass or the shades of stones. Accordingly, the artist works perfectly with the colors and light. In this work he also applies shadows, through which he emphasizes the atmosphere of the island. Nevertheless, the hills themselves are singled out with bright yellow colors, and the dead figure is underlined with white lime color. However, it is hard to find a source of light, as there are seem to be even more than two sources, which additionally emphasize the mysterious story of the painting. The viewpoint is located behind the figures, so it leads to the idea that the viewer can also be on the boat or even on another island. Accordingly, Alfred Böcklin creates a situation of the celestial experiences that everyone can get from this scene.
The plot of the picture is the ancient myth that the souls of heroes and gods find the last refuge on a secluded island. The mirrored waters of the underground river Acheron wash the isle of the dead, through which the boatman Charon passes dead souls. The rower is often associated with Charon, and the water with Styx and Acheron, the underground dead rivers. According to this, the first figure is Charon, and the second one is someone’s soul. A long rectangular box stands before the dead figure, which is usually interpreted as a coffin. Cypresses are associated with death, and they often grow in cemeteries in the Southern Europe. Alfred Böcklin in his painting clears the reality of all momentary and everyday elements. The artist depicts objects and elements in such unique way that hides a mysterious, elusive essence under its appearance. Hence, Isle of the Dead represents the artist’s intention to erase the border between reality and dream. Böcklin has for a long time tried to show a fictional world, often deliberately secretive. Accordingly, on the beginning of his career, he wrote romantic landscapes with mythological figures, and then fantastic scenes with nymphs and sea monsters. In this particular work a fantastic symbolism is combined with a naturalistic authenticity of details, influenced by the formation of the German symbolism and Jugendstil. Though Böcklin did not give any interpretations of his work, he called this work a dream picture. It is not accident that Sigmund Freud loved this work, since it is associated not only with the world of dead, but the world of dreams and desires.
The Mediterranean nature, southern sun, and contact with classical art in Italy, primarily from ancient Roman frescoes in Pompeii, prompt the artist to new topics. He opens the window in the blessed land where mythological figures live with each other in a pure harmony. In his paintings he constantly engages in dialogue with the legacy of European art, responding to great predecessors: the masters of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, baroque, and classicist artists. Alfred Böcklin usually does not give names to his works, but the name Isle of the Dead he invented himself. In April 1880, he writes from Florence to the buyer of the picture, philanthropist Alexander Gunther, that Isle of the Dead soon will be completed. However, it is not yet finished when the artist receives the order from the young widow Mary Bern. She has seen the unfinished version of the first work, so she becomes the owner of the second. Moreover, the standing in a boat figure in a white shroud and coffin is missing in the first and second embodiments. Alfred Böcklin painted these important details later. It is important that he does not copy the first version of picture, and each time he develops a new story, keeping the base composition, but changing the size, technique, colors, and lighting.
Isle of the Dead is one of the most popular works in Europe, and Böcklin has not only become the leader of symbolism, but has also gone beyond its limits. Even though it is a mystical and unusual masterpiece, the work quickly becomes kitsch, because every intellectual has it in their office. Alfred Böcklin has become a cult figure, and the elegant typeface Böcklin is even named in honor of the artist. According to eyewitnesses, on the turn of the century there was no German family, where Böcklin reproductions of paintings were not present. The famous reproduction graced the office of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, and the founder of psychoanalysis mentioned Böcklin in his lectures. It was also in the Lenin’s bedroom in Zurich, as evidenced by archival photographs.
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The melancholic atmosphere of this work precisely reflects the mood in society, which is designated by the word “decadence.” It is a vague longing, apprehension, avid interest in the other world, and a feeling of being tired of life, rejection, rough earthly reality. In the living room, where the spiritual séances were conducted, Isle of the Dead was a quite appropriate background. People turned to this work as nostalgia for the old days, because it represented a longing for a bygone era. As the world grew too quickly, people did not have time for new inventions and discoveries, and thus needed more time for adaptation. They observed this work as a farewell to the culture, based on humanistic values retreating under the pressure of industrialization. At the same time, the leading intellectuals of those times believed the picture was a cultural lighthouse, which opened the future. The magical atmosphere of Isle of the Dead attracted the avant-garde writers. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire, the discoverer of surrealism in poetry, put Isle of the Dead on a level with the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Giorgio de Chirico, the creator of metaphysical painting, thought that Böcklin was his teacher. Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí also recognized the influence of the artist.
All things considered, these works are important to the late 19th century art. Monet’s Regatta at Sainte-Adresse belongs to impressionism, as there is a transmission of human sensations with bright and light colors. Nevertheless, it shows the artist’s complex inner state and the anxious time as well. Monet represents the end of the era of bourgeois, who continue to have fun on the beach, unaware of the inevitable changes in the world. Moreover, his painting is a great example how the artist can hide the symbolic meaning in the realistic painting. At the same time, Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead depicts the world of the dead, which is represented with island and two figures on the boat. It is a mystical and symbolic work, because it represents the cultural influences of his time, and has influenced on avant-garde and surrealism. Many intellectuals consider it as their spiritual guide, but, in fact, this picture conveys the disturbing mood of an era that is changing rapidly. Thus, the island was a symbol of human confusion and helplessness.