Ferdinand Hodler (March 14,
1853 – May 19, 1918) was one of the best-known Swiss
painters of the nineteenth century. His early works were
portraits, landscapes, and genre paintings in a realistic
style. Later, he adopted a personal form of symbolism he
Hodler was born in Berne, the eldest of six children. His
father, Jean Hodler, made a meager living as a carpenter;
his mother, Marguerite (née Neukomm), was from a peasant
family. By the time Hodler was eight years old, he had lost
his father and two younger brothers to tuberculosis. His
mother remarried to a decorative painter, but in 1867 she
too died of tuberculosis. Eventually the disease killed all
of Hodler's remaining siblings, instilling in the artist a
powerful consciousness of mortality.
Before he was ten, Hodler received training in decorative
painting from his stepfather and, subsequently was sent to
Thun to apprentice with a local painter, Ferdinand Sommer.
Hodler's earliest works were conventional landscapes, which
he sold in shops and to tourists. In 1871, at the age of 18,
he traveled on foot to Geneva to start his career as a
painter. He attended science lectures at the Collège de
Genève, and in the museum there he copied paintings by
Alexandre Calame. In 1873 he became a student of Barthélemy
Menn, and investigated Dürer’s writings on proportions.
He made a trip to Basel in
1875, where he studied the paintings of Hans Holbein—especially,
Dead Christ in the Tomb, which influenced Hodler's many
treatments of the theme of death. He traveled to Madrid in
1878, where he stayed for several months and studied the
works of masters such as Titian, Poussin, and Velázquez in
the Museo del Prado.
The works of Hodler's early
maturity consisted of landscapes, figure compositions, and
portraits, treated with a vigorous realism. In 1884, Hodler
met Augustine Dupin (1852–1909), who became his companion
and model for the next several years. Their son, Hector
Hodler—who would found the World Esperanto Association in
1908—was born in 1887.
From 1889 until their
divorce in 1891, Hodler was married to Bertha Stucki, who is
depicted in his painting, Poetry (1897, Museum für
Gestaltung, Zürich). In 1898, Hodler married Berthe Jacques.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century his work
evolved to combine influences from several genres including
symbolism and art nouveau. In 1890 he completed Night, a
work that marked Hodler's turn toward symbolist imagery. It
depicts several recumbent figures, all of them relaxed in
sleep except for an agitated man who is menaced by a figure
shrouded in black, which Hodler intended as a symbol of
death. Hodler developed a style he called "Parallelism" that
emphasized the symmetry and rhythm he believed formed the
basis of human society. In paintings such as The Chosen One,
groupings of figures are symmetrically arranged in poses
suggestive of ritual or dance.
Hodler painted number of
large-scale historical paintings, often with patriotic
themes. In 1897 he accepted a commission to paint a series
of large frescoes for the Weapons Room of the
Schweizerisches Landesmuseum in Zurich. The compositions he
proposed, including The Battle of Marignan which depicted a
battle that the Swiss lost, were controversial for their
imagery and style, and Hodler was not permitted to execute
the frescoes until 1900.
Hodler's work in his final
phase took on an expressionist aspect with strongly coloured
and geometrical figures. Landscapes were pared down to
essentials, sometimes consisting of a jagged wedge of land
between water and sky.
In 1908, he met Valentine Godé-Darel, who became his
mistress. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1913, and the
many hours Hodler spent by her bedside resulted in a
remarkable series of paintings documenting her decline from
the disease. Her death in January 1915 affected Hodler
greatly. He occupied himself with work on a series of about
20 introspective self-portraits that date from 1916.
In 1914 he condemned the
German atrocities conducted using artillery at Rheims. In
retaliation for this, German art museums excluded Hodler's
By late 1917 his declining health led him to thoughts of
suicide. He died on May 19, 1918 in Geneva leaving behind a
number of unfinished works portraying the city.
Many of Hodler's best-known paintings are scenes in which
characters are engaged in everyday activities, such as the
famous woodcutter (Der Holzfäller, 1910, Musée d'Orsay,
Paris). In 1908, the Swiss National Bank commissioned Hodler
to create two designs for new paper currency. His designs
were controversial: rather than portraits of famous men,
Hodler chose to depict a woodcutter (for the 50 Swiss Franc
bank note) and a reaper (for the 100 Franc note). Both
appeared in the 1911 Series Two of the notes.
According to the art
historian Sepp Kern, Hodler "helped revitalize the art of
monumental wall painting, and his work is regarded as
embodying the Swiss federal identity."
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