We will never know for certain whether or not the personification of death was an afterthought, as one account would have it. Artists’ self-portraits with a memento mori have been known since time immemorial. The inspiration for this figure of Death playing the fiddle probably came from the Portrait of Sir Bryan Tuke in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, where Böcklin had lived since 1871. At the time it was wrongly attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, whose woodcuts of dances of death with images of Death playing the fiddle would also have been known to Böcklin. In this self-portrait, Death is playing on the lowest string, tuned to G, which is here also the only string of the fiddle. The painter, alert, has paused in his work. According to the story, Böcklin only painted in the figure of Death in response to his friends’ asking what he seemed to be listening to. This clearly relates to the search for the ultimate that characterizes this self-portrait, and the inspiration the artist draws from the constant proximity of death. The impressive quality of this self-portrait inspired other painters including Hans Thoma and Lovis Corinth to paint similar portraits of themselves.


  • Title: Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
  • Creator: Arnold Böcklin
  • Date Created: 1872
  • Physical Dimensions: w61.0 x h75.0 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Technique and material: Oil on canvas
  • Inv.-No.: A I 633
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-815114
  • External link: Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Prestel Verlag / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: © b p k - Photo Agency / Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Andres Kilger
  • Collection: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Artist biography: Arnold Böcklin was a Symbolist Swiss painter. He studied in Düsseldorf and became a landscape painter. His subjects later changed after several journeys around Europe, including to Brussels, Zurich, Paris, Geneva and Rome, from which time his paintings bore the influences of classical and Renaissance art and the Mediterranean landscape. His compositions show these new influences through allegorical and mythological themes. He exerted great influence on Surrealist artists like Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dalí. In his paintings, Böcklin created a strange, brooding fantasy world, populated by fantastical figures. His best known artworks are the five versions of 'Isle of the Dead' (1880–1886).
  • Artist Place of Death: San Domenico, Italy
  • Artist Place of Birth: Basel, Switzerland
  • Artist Dates: 1827-10-16/1901-01-16

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