Artwork of the Week: Self-Portrait With Death

Art: Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
Artist: Arnold Böcklin

About the work: On the surface, most self-portraits cry out as vanity projects designed to test the artist’s skill, or preserve their visage in the medium that carries their legacy. In truth, the portraits were commissioned by wealthy patrons generally for the purpose of becoming a talking point when entertaining honoured guests.

Swiss symbolist painter Böcklin’s self-portrait goes further, exemplifying the true potential of the medium. Rather than simply gazing into a mirror and copying what he sees onto canvas, as so many artists did before, Böcklin’s self-portrait is an encapsulation of the man haunted by his past.

Böcklin developed an obsession with mortality following the death of his infant daughter. From that moment on, it became the crux of his work, though never as obviously as in Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle. Böcklin is not looking at himself; instead, he is listening. Listening to the entrancing words of a gleeful Death, the morbid spectre perpetually at his back.

Death’s fiddle features a single string to remind Böcklin that life is fragile. It could break at any time, and once the song ends, so too will Böcklin’s life.

Self-Portrait with Death stands as one of the great self-portraits, alongside the work of more contemporary artists such as Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, David Hockney’s Self-Portrait with Charlie, and Pablo Picasso’s Self-Portrait Facing Death. It reveals to the viewer the honest nature of the artist, stirring emotions in a way only the best art can.

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