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Sergei Rachmaninoff – Isle of the Dead

March 17, 2010
Sergei Rachmaninoff's tone poem Isle of the Dead, Op. 29, from 1909, was inspired by Arnold??B??cklin's painting of the same title. ??B??cklin produced five versions of the painting during his life, four of which survive today. ??The fourth version seems to have been destroyed during World War II.

The "Basel" version, from 1880
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The "New York" version, also from 1880
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The third version, from 1883
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A photo of the lost fourth version, from 1884
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And the fifth version, from 1886
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All versions of Isle of the Dead depict a desolate and rocky islet seen across an expanse of dark water. A small rowboat is just arriving at a water gate and seawall on shore.[2] An oarsman maneuvers the boat from the stern. In the bow, facing the gate, is a standing figure clad entirely in white. Just behind the figure is a white, festooned object commonly interpreted as a coffin. The tiny islet is dominated by a dense grove of tall, dark cypress trees ??? associated by long-standing tradition with cemeteries and mourning ??? which is closely hemmed in by precipitous cliffs. Furthering the funerary theme are what appear to be sepulchral portals and windows penetrating the rock faces. The overall impression conveyed by the imagery is one of both hopeless desolation and tense expectation.

B??cklin himself provided no public explanation as to the meaning of the painting, though he did describe it as ???a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.???[3][4] The title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883, was not specified by B??cklin, though it does derive from a phrase in an 1880 letter he sent to the painting???s original commissioner.[5] Not knowing the history of the early versions of the painting (see below), many observers have interpreted the oarsman as representing the boatman Charon who conducted souls to the underworld in Greek mythology. The water would then be either the River Styx or the River Acheron and his white-clad passenger a recently deceased soul transiting to the afterlife.*

B??cklin also painted a nice counterpoint landscape titled Isle of Life in 1888
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It is thought that B??cklin's inspiration for all of these paintings was the Greek island Pondikonisi, near Corfu
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