This dream – like painting was not named “The Isle of the Dead” by the artist himself, but by an art dealer. The idea of the widow and the coffin was given to him when Marie Berna visited Bocklin’s studio, and it alludes to her husband’s death. The painting inspired Rachmaninoff to write an orchestral poem, though interestingly enough he based it on a black and white reproduction of the original. Rachmaninoff was rather dissapointed when he learned the original was in color:
I was not much moved by the color of the painting. If I had seen the original first, I might not have composed my Isle of the Dead. I like the picture best in black and white.*
I wonder what Bocklin would have thought of that, considering how he painted at least five versions of this painting, all of which are in color.
Rachmaninoff also commented on the creative process for this piece:
My composing goes slowly. I go for a long walk in the country. My eye catches the sharp sparks of light on fresh foliage after showers; my ears the rustling undernote of the woods. Or I watch the pale tints of the sky over the horizon after sundown, and they come: all voices at once. Not a bit here, a bit there. All the whole grows. So The Isle of the Dead, It Was all done in April and May. When it came, how it began— how can, say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.*
* taken from “Sergei Rachmaninoff A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda