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What Destiny Holds For Painter Ferdinand Hodler

by David Fox

Ferdinand Hodler, one of the leading figures in modern European paintings, developed outside the mainstream of the so-called avant-garde, and his life and work bridged the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries. At the end of the XIX century, he was the one of the leading Symbolist painters.

Here is a self-portrait of the artist.



Born into a very modest craftsman’s family in Berne, 1853, and losing not only his parents but also his siblings very early (they were killed by tuberculosis), he fought hard in life. The eldest of six children, Hodler was then orphaned at the age of fourteen, but he was also very ambitious and determined to become an artist.

If you know anything about art, you might know that becoming an artist takes a certain special kind of determination, because unlike other trades, visual artists, in the context of history, are almost certainly doomed to poverty and mental illness – and that’s if they’re successful!

Moving to Geneva, then the main artistic center in Switzerland, Hodler was noticed by Barthelémy Mann, a student of Ingres, and teacher at the Geneva School of drawing. He studied with him between 1872 and 1877.

Mann completed Hodler’s visual and cultural education. He taught him to respect drawing and form and introduced him to French painting.

Here is Ferdinand Hodler’s Thunersee mit Stockhornkette


Hodler’s early paintings were marked by harsh, powerful realism which resembled Courbet; it disconcerted the critics of Geneva who were divided into two opposing sites- one censured his indulgence of ugliness, other praise the originality of his artwork.

In the mid 1880s, Hodler met poets, critics and journalists, the admirers of Wagner, Mallarme and Verlaine, who formed the first Symbolist circle in Geneva, in which Hodler was closely involved. His art developed towards a style of realism coupled with idealism and symbolism.


His portraits of the artisans at work and of the destitute were the starting point for a wider reflection on man’s destiny. A Glimpse into Eternity – an old man is making a child’s coffin; this rigorous composition and the powerful light was the significant development.

Recreating the details of the carpenter’s work very carefully, Hodler links the scene to a superior order through the old man’s attitude of prayer. Here is the work itself, albeit small.


In a gradual way, divested of any reference to everyday life or specific social environment, the theme develops towards a radical portrayal of our inexorable march towards death. In this period at the end of the 1880s and the beginning of the 1990s, death had become an obsession for Hodler who, since his childhood, has been faced with the loss of his family.

The Night

It was triumphed in (1889/1890) The Night, a capital large format of strong expression and dramatic tension, when the author faced the phantom of death. It is a manifesto of Hodlerian Symbolism. The realism of the nudes and the poses of these couples in The Night cause a scandal in Geneva in February 1891.

The painting was not accepted for the Beaux-Arts exhibition in Geneva.

Ferdinand_hodler_the Night
Ferdinand_hodler_the Night

In The Night, the painter portrays himself as having been rudely awakened by the figure of death. Around him are entwined men and women asleep; with self-portraits slipped in along with the portraits of the two women with whom Hodler shared his life: Augustine Dupain, his companion since the early days and the mother of his son, and Bertha Stuckie, his wife from a tempestuous and brief marriage.

The artist presented a period of his life in an autobiographical picture at the scale of a history painting, just as Courbet did in The Studio. The meaning of the work is universal for it is symbolic: it doesn’t represent any particular moment, but evokes the essence of death and night.

In The Night, Hodler combines a heightened realism and a very strict decorative order to an extent which had never been equaled, and which became the trademark of Hodlerian Symbolism. The sequencing of the figures are according to Hodler’s own principle of symmetry, as well as the search for frontality, is one of the most stunning expressions of a parallelism- as the repetition of similar forms, a principle defined by Hodler.

Parallelism is more than a principle of formal composition, it is a moral and philosophical idea, relying on the premise that nature has an order, based on repetition, and that in the end all men resemble each other.

This piece overshadows the compositions of The Disappointed, Tired of Living and Eurhythmy, with the images of old men descending from the stage of life. There are, however, more sophisticated pieces, such as The Chosen One and Path of the Chosen Souls.

Here, below, is The Chosen One by Ferdinand Hodler


In the meantime, Hodler abandoned the realism of the 1880s in favor of a realism of expression and color. He was inventing a specific and original form of Symbolism; drawing on the men’s lost harmony with nature.

It was a celebration of vital energy: a woman became the spiritual heroine and a child symbolized the innocence and the force of life; the emphatic gestures were inspired by modern dance and experimental ways of expressing emotion. These compositions, harmonizing with each other in the spirit of great Symbolist themes, brought him success in Europe, especially in the newly formed Secessions in Vienna, and Jugendstil in Berlin.

Take a look at Ferdinand Hodler’s Aufstieg I


Quarrel Of The Frescoes

As early as in 1880s, and from 1900 onward, Hodler was regarded as one of the great decorators and history painters. He was elaborating topics from the history of Switzerland and Germany. His first two works in Switzerland in this field were the subject of a great controversy.

The first was the decoration in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, for the Swiss National Exhibition in Geneva, 1896, and the second was for a painting of The Retreat at Marignano for the Swiss National Museum in Zurich.

The commission resulted in what would become known in Switzerland as the ‘’quarrel of the Frescoes’’ and continued for almost two years (1898-1900). Hodler was reproached for not keeping closer to the historical and for not expressing the heroism normally extolled in more descriptive and narrative history paintings.

The Retreat at Marignano (below)


Nonetheless, he had to wait more than ten years for his mural on the opposite wall to The Retreat at Marignano to be confirmed. It was The Battle of Morat, and it was the last artist’s historical panel on which he worked on from the summer of 1915 in France, then left unfinished in 1917.

However, this episode was the end of Hodler’s radical attempt at simplifying the genre. He regenerated it profoundly by his own choice of bright colors, applied without depth, and by the power of his expression.

Of his excellent historical compositions The Battle of Fraubrunnen, Wilhelm Tell, The Battle of Näfels: only The Retreat at Marignano was chosen as a final work ( Schweizerisches Landesmuseum in Zürich). Hodler became a significant mural painter at the turn of a century: he later produced Iena for the Iena University (1909) and Unanimity for the Hannover Town Hall (1912/13).

Wilhelm Tell by Ferdinand Hodler (below):



Hodler is considered to be the greatest representative of monumentalism, defined by German historiography as one of the important trends of Stilkunst um 1900, art of style around 1900. At the same time, he successfully accepted the nervous, elegant and refined lines of Jugendstil (Dream, Poetry).

In addition, he was considered a herald of German expressionism.

His fame in Europe was contributed to the most by the XIX exhibition of Viennese secession in 1904, where he had a separate hall. At the time, he was admired by the best: Klimt, Hoffman, Liebermann Jr.

Kokoschka, Kandinsky interpreted musical features of painting by his work.

Young Man Admired by Women (below):


Famous and rich, Hodler turn to worldly joys, as testified by his monumental allegoric compositions (Days, Emotions, the Young Man Admired by Women, Love, etc), which emphasized his sense of beauty and sacredness of life.

They are full of young women placed before shallow floral background – in the apse or in the frieze; the composition rests on a firm architectural and rhythmic analysis of surface, with a rich linear play on top of it.


Hard To Resist

This is the time when the beautiful and young Jean-Charles entered Hodler’s life. In 1901-1916, she was to be his favorite model: she posed not only for all the compositions listed, but also for the Swiss fifty franc note- her face did appear on it, for a sequence of individual portraits.

This is visible in her collection which covers over four decades (1873-1914) and gives a considerable insight into the artist’s opus, especially the intimate part of it.


While posing for Hodler, Jeanne married the musician A Cerani (1905) and became a widow (1914), which never disturbed her relationship with the painter, a polygamist. He was never reluctant to maintain relationships with several women while married to Berthe Jacques, with whom he spent 20 years, until he died, and to whom he referred as ‘’his elegant half’’.

Thus, for instance, in 1910/11, he was with Jeanne and the Italian Giulia Leonardi, the Parisienne Valentine Godé-Darel, who was, in a way, the woman of his life, and who later became the mother of his daughter Paulette.

The most important women in Hodler’s life have lived in his artworks- the oldest commoner Augustine Dupin, the mother of his son Hector, the ones listed, and Gertrud Müler, a rich collector and a dear friend.

Hodler was not just an irresistible man, but also- more importantly – he was a man of strong character and integrity, a fearless fighter for justice, equality, unity, which was, from 1881 onwards, reflected in his doctrine of parallelism based on rhythmic repetition of similar shapes in symmetry, with an aesthetic, social and metaphysical dimension.

It is therefore not surprising that Switzerland recognized the idea of its national identity in his work: independence, love for freedom, democracy persistence, etc.


When the Germans bombed The Reims cathedral at the beginning of World War I, Hodler signed a protest of artists and intellectuals of Geneva (where he lived from 1872 until his death in 1918), against this ‘’barbaric act’’.

In Germany, a campaign was launched immediately against the artist praised until not long before that: They threw his paintings out of public places; they attacked him, everywhere, at occasion. His friends advised him to remove his signature from the ‘’ Geneva protest’’: he refused.

These unfortunate events coincided with the slow and painful death of his dearest Valentine to cancer. He truthfully expressed his feelings in almost two hundred paintings and drawings, considered by some to be ‘’the most dramatic series on the entire history of art’’. With an almost unbearable documentary brutality, he records the inexorable progress of her illness and suffering.

This exceptional series, was not only an escape from pain and grief, but it was part of his much wider reflection on death which, with its ghostly appearance in The Night, and as the common destiny for all in Eurhythmy and Tired of Life became with Valentine, the great stylizer, exposing the truth about the body and the face.


The discovery of this series, Ein Maler von Liebe und Tot / A Painter before Love and Death,1976/1977, as well as the discovery of incredible expression and versatility of his portraits- Selbstbildnisse als Selbstbiographie / Self-portraits and Autobiography, Bern, 1979, for both again we owe gratitude to Jura Brüschweiler.

A historiographer of such format and such dedication is Hodler’s posthumous reward for his life.


After Valentine had died, Hodler found peace in painting large horizontal of death flattening all the differences: it was the body of the beloved woman, and landscape including Earth and Heaven – the entire Universe.

For Hodler, landscape painting had a philosophical dimension. He thought that the painter had to reveal the laws of nature and of the world through a patient structured study of location. This order relies on parallelism, repetition and symmetry.

According to this artist landscape painting should ‘’show us nature made greater and simpler, pared of all insignificant details’’. The Hodlerian landscape is known for the elimination of all that is irregular and incidental and characterized by the suppression of aerial and chromatic perspective.


During the remaining three years of his life, Hodler painted his master-pieces, and he reached his peak in the last ten landscapes, made just before he died, with Mont Blanc at dusk and dawn.

These burning, cosmic landscapes lead Dieter Honisch to a daring conclusion that Hodler heralded the radicalism of Rhotko and Newmann: an image becomes “pure contemplation’’.

Beauty and celebration of light, which chased away the forces of darkness, goes beyond any individual destiny.

Let us recall the ancient teaching that only separate existence means suffering, and the return to the source, “the great unity’’ liberates us from the pain of confinement in the individual, the interim, and the transient.

Thus the drop returns to the Ocean, in order to free itself from its tiny I, and to immerse into the great Self.


About David Fox

David Fox is an artist who created to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.

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