Geneva Art School
He studied at the Geneva Art School under
Barthelemy Menn (1815-93). Menn was a successful artist, who had studied
with the Swiss history painter Jean-Leonard Lugardon (18011884)
and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (17801867), and was a friend of
Corot. This was a defining time for Hodler who was later to say: "It
is to him [Menn] that I owe everything". Hodlers self-portrait
The Student (1874) was painted at this period, and shows him starting
his life as an artist. It coincided with his first public exhibitions.
In 1875, he made a trip to Basel, where he studied the paintings of Hans
Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), being greatly impressed by his painting
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521, Kunstmuseum
Hodler's paintings were highly realistic, and for years critics were divided
into two camps. One thought his work was ugly, while the other praised
it as original and as paving the way for a Swiss school of realist
painting. Although Hodler received some recognition, he found it difficult
to make a living. In the mid-1880s he became closely involved with the
first Symbolist movement in Geneva. He exhibited a self-portrait The
Angry One, at the 1881 National Society of Beaux Arts, and in London.
In 1885 he received his first solo show in Geneva, followed by another
in 1887 in Bern. His art continued to develop along realist lines, but
now with Symbolist tendencies. His portraits of destitute artists were
viewed as reflecting man's destiny. His painting A Glimpse into Eternity
was a significant development, showing an old man carving a child's coffin.
He became obsessed with death, and man's journey towards it.
Note: Other famous 19th century exponents
of symbolism included John Henry Fuseli
(1776-1837), Caspar David Friedrich
(1774-1840), Gustave Moreau (1826-98),
Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Gustav
Klimt (1862-1918), and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98). Symbolist
painters used mythology, a variety of dream imagery and other symbols,
to convey their message, which was often highly personal.
The Night: First Major Painting
In 1889 Hodler painted The Night, which was his first major work.
In this painting he portrays himself having been suddenly awoken by the
figure of death. He is surrounded by a group of men and women entwined
in sleep. The work is symbolic and universal, evoking the essence of death
and night. It displays a heightened Realism, reflective of Courbet's The
Studio (1855, Musee dOrsay, Paris). It also shows an influence
of Puvis de Chavannes, a painter Hodler much admired and befriended. In
the painting the couples are placed in a 2-D setting, where the rhythmic
line and placement of the figures are in a strict decorative order. The
figures are sequenced in symmetry, a principle Hodler called Parallelism
(he created the term to explain the repetition of similar forms). He applied
the principles of Parallelism to the rest of his artistic career. For
him, it had more than a simple compositional meaning: it extended to a
philosophical idea about life, in that nature has an order, a sequence,
a repetition and that all men in the end are the same. When The Night
was first exhibited in Geneva in 1891, the nudity caused a scandal, causing
it to be rejected by the Beaux-Arts exhibition. However, it was accepted
into the Parisian Beaux-Arts and was singled out by Auguste
Rodin (1840-1917) and Puvis. Still, success was not instant. The artist
had to wait until 1900, when the painting secured him a gold medal at
the Universal Exhibition.
Hodler gradually moved away from the realism of the 1880s, towards colour
and expressionism. Clothes, drapery, emphatic gestures became important,
which were inspired by modern dance. Portrait
art, necessary in the past to earn a living, became his chosen genre,
giving him the chance to experiment with expression and colour. The models
were placed against neutral backgrounds, so he could focus on the basics.
From 1900 he was in great demand as a portrait painter. His most powerful
works from this period are his paintings and sketches of his mistress
Valentine Gode-Darel, who lay dying in her bed. He documented the cruelty
of death, as it ravaged her body in the last few days of her life. Hodler
is also remembered as a history painter and decorator. In 1896 he was
commissioned to paint the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Geneva for the Swiss
National Exhibition, and to paint a historical event - The Retreat
from Marignan - for the Swiss National Museum. His skill with this
type of monumental painting led to further commissions, including Unanimity
(1913, Town Hall, Hanover); A Glimpse into Infinity (1915, Kunsthaus,
Zurich) and Blossoming (unfinished, University of Zurich). Another
of his most famous works is the Woodcutter (Musee d'Orsay, Paris),
which appeared on the Swiss 50 Franc note.
Towards the end of his life, Hodler returned to landscape painting. His
favourite subjects were Swiss mountains, lakes, glaciers, trees and rocks.
Passionate about 'the substance of nature', he would go out and take sketches,
careful to render topographical details accurately, and then return to
his studio to reproduce them on canvas. He relied on Parallelism, the
repetition and symmetry in nature. He believed that landscape painting
should 'show us nature made greater and simpler, pared of all insignificant
details'. Gradually his work became more and more pared of detail, verging
on abstract art.
Hodler loved drawing.
An active sketcher, on his death he left more than 9,000 drawings and
12,000 sketchbook drawings. He was a firm believer in preparatory sketches,
whether they were for a portrait, history painting or Symbolist composition.
In the last few years of his life, he used what was called 'Durer's glass',
a plate of glass on which he traced the outline of the model, and then
transferred to paper. This particularly impressed his contemporaries.
See also: German
Art, 19th Century.
He died in Geneva in 1918.
Famous Paintings by Ferdinand Hodler
The Night (1891) Kunstmuseum, Bern.
Tired of Life (1892) Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
The Disillusioned One (1892) Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Wilhelm Tell (1897) Solothurn Art Museum.
The Day (1904) Kunsthaus, Zurich.
The Sacred Hour (1907) Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio.
Study of a Head of an Italian Woman (1910) Wallraf-Richartz
Woman in Ecstasy (1911) Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva.
The Dying Valentine Gode-Darel (1915) Kunstmuseum, Basel.
Paintings by Ferdinand Hodler can be seen
in many of the best art museums throughout