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




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Arnold Böcklin


Old nationwide Gallery


Bodestraße 1-3Berlin, Germany

Arty fact

The picture of a skeleton playing a musical instrument was popularized in a medieval creative allegory called the danse macabre (which method “dance the death”), a heritage likely being invoked intentionally in this self-portrait.

Rumor has actually it the Böcklin consisted of the figure of fatality in this self-portrait only as an afterthought, including it as soon as a girlfriend asked what he appeared to be listening to based on the far-off expression in his eyes.


More about Self-portrait with Fiddling Death

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Canvas, Oil paint
H: 75 x W: 61 cm
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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 part screechy music on 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 friend asked Böcklin what he to be listening to based upon the distant expression in his eyes and the slim tilt come his head. In response, he naturally added a skeletal reminder the his very own mortality right into the background, thus turning the painting into a donation to the longstanding tradition of memento mori artworks which such macabre characters tend to populate. The single-stringed violin argues that Böcklin’s time is running out; the others have actually presumably every snapped, and Böcklin is, it would appear, listening come the sound of his own fatality creeping closer to him together the music playing in his ear grows an ext frantic and also dissonant through each damaged string. It’s possible that this picture of the final string is supposed to be an allusion to the Fates the Greek mythology, that (as us all well understand from Disney’s "Hercules") had the strength to quickly kill mortals by cutting a object representing their lifespan. And also Böcklin to be a huge nerd for Greek mythology, so this reading seems entirely plausible.

Böcklin’s choice to depict his skeleton companion playing a violin may additionally be a reference to a late medieval subgenre that the memento mori called the danse macabre (meaning, delightfully, the “dance that death”), which he would have actually been exposed to either in the woodcuts the Hans Holbein the Younger or painted on the wall surfaces of a cemetery in his hometown Basel, Switzerland, where few of the earliest instances of the theme might be spotted. The general message the the danse is that all people, regardless of their terminal in life, must eventually die. One uplifting message, i suppose, if her life isn’t all that an excellent to begin with, and also Böcklin’s to be pretty rocky, to say the least, even if the didn"t live throughout the time the the plague.

He definitely would have actually been well-acquainted with death by the time he painted this self-portrait, his first fiancée having died prior to they had actually a possibility to obtain married, and also his ultimate wife providing birth to fourteen children, 5 of whom passed away in childhood. Perhaps the reason behind his old girlfriend Death’s intimate proximity at his shoulder (and Böcklin being completely cool with this neglect for his personal space) is his consistent awareness the they could meet at any type of moment. He no seem all the fazed by the idea, though. Instead, the casually leans earlier to hear what death has to tell him, his stare pensively directed far from the viewer together he listens closely to that song, together if death is for him a trusted confidante or advisor providing him some honest feedback on his work rather than something to it is in feared. Böcklin would attract upon this illustrated familiarity with fatality again eight year later, in his iconic 1880 painting The Island the the Dead.

Böcklin creates an illusion that naturalness by having actually his painted twin look far from the viewer, giving himself the illustration of having just paused because that a minute in his work to hear to fatality at his shoulder, evidently unaware the we deserve to see him. What he’s painting, where he’s looking, and what precisely death is whispering in his ear room all preserved from us, reinforcing a voyeuristic position of the viewer and also suggesting the this self-portrait no posed (although, that course, that was). And yet yes something really self-conscious around including a memento mori in your very own self-portrait. Böcklin may well have been poking funny at himself and also the genre of self-portraiture at large in this choice; probably he had a real minute like this one as soon as he paused in his work to take into consideration why the felt the require to keep his own image in paints and, laughing at his own foolishness, included in the number of fatality at critical minute, a tongue-in-cheek answer to his very own question. In a very contemporary and self-reflexive move, Böcklin seems to have used this opportunity to talk about the are afraid that lies, at least on part level, behind every self-portrait an artist creates—namely, the of fatality sneaking increase behind to move away the living human body a portrait seeks to preserve.

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In this way, the paint could also be review as a clever take it on vanitas, an additional subgenre of memento mori meant come remind one of the transience the earthly pleasures, generally taking the form of a tho life. Yet here Böcklin is play on the double-meaning consisted of within the term; “vain” (derived indigenous the Latin vanitas) deserve to mean futile, valueless, or not worthy of pursuit, the feeling in which it is usually supposed in the vanitas still life. However if you vain, it can likewise mean that you have an overly-high opinion of yourself, and also Böcklin, by painting his own photo into some version of a vanitas still life, appears to be having a an excellent hearty laugh at himself for gift so big-headed that he would certainly actually desire to paint his own portrait. Together a comic approach was quite on-brand because that Böcklin. He was primarily recognized for his irreverent take it on scene from timeless mythology, a kind of in-joke he had actually with himself which made him exceptionally popular through 19th century europe audiences, who by that point had gotten pretty exhausted of seeing the very same scenes illustrated in the same decorous means over and also over again. 

Although frequently labelled as a Symbolist and highly influential on the Surrealists the the adhering to century (Max serious in particular), Böcklin largely wanted to march come his very own beat. He invested a far-ranging portion of his life living in Rome researching Renaissance and Baroque art, and also as a result was an ext or less unaware of all the shiny new contemporary art motions that to be unfolding throughout his lifetime. This at the very least partially defines all the memento mori symbolism, which to be at its trendiest in the early 17th century. He may have been a little late to that specific party, but, just like all his reworkings of old themes, still controlled to carry a dash the his signature Böcklin humor to it, do something fully new.