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Arnold Böcklin - Game of the Naiads

by Julia Kynast

The high seas have been the source of numerous myths and legends since time immemorial. It is therefore not surprising that numerous artists refer to it. This was also the case with the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), who from the 1870s onwards created numerous paintings dealing with the theme of the stormy sea as well as with the mythology of sea creatures. These paintings are considered an important part of his life's work. 

"The Play of the Naiads" was created in 1886 during Böcklin's stay in Zurich and was acquired that same year by the Kunstmuseum Basel, where it remains today. At the center of this transverse rectangular, dynamic painting, a craggy rock, rendered in dark tones, juts out of the stormy sea. High, windswept waves break around it, enveloping the bizarre rock formation in a cloud of white spray. The sky is shrouded in dark gray, barely visible. But in front of this gloomy scenario, a colorful crowd of sea people of different ages is cavorting. They play exuberantly and can be seen from any perspective. Their hair and fins shine all around. The seven female mermaids, the two mermen and the infant each have a human torso as well as the tail fin of a fish.

To understand the painting, a short excursion into ancient mythology should be ventured. It becomes clear that the title of the painting actually does not quite fit the depicted. "Game of the Nereids" would be more appropriate and is also used so in part in the literature. The oldest written records of these figures can be found in the ancient poets Homer and Hesiod. Both Naiads and Nereids are considered nymphs and lower female deities in ancient mythology. Naiads are located at springs, Nereids in the depths of the sea. Nereids are the daughters of the sea god Nereus and have the task of protecting the shipwrecked on the high seas. In his paintings, however, Arnold Böcklin mixed these mythological figures with the Nordic, romantic world of fairy tales and legends. Thus, among other things, references can be found to Wilhelm Busch's "Wasserneck", which comes from the picture story "The Two Sisters" (1880) and Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid". The latter fell in love with a mortal prince, whom she saved from drowning. In order to follow him, she made a cruel pact with the sea witch, who gave her a magic potion that transformed her tail fin into human legs. In return, she lost her immortal soul.

Arnold Böcklin - Game of the Naiads

Oil on canvas, 1886, 151 × 176,5 cm, Kunstmuseum in Basel


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