Ferdinand Hodler
Biography, Paintings of Swiss Symbolist Painter.

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The Sick Valentine Gode-Darel (1915)
Kunstmuseum, Solothurn,Switzerland)

Paintings by Ferdinand Hodler
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)

Along with Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) Ferdinand Hodler was one of the leading Swiss Symbolist painters of the 19th century. He did not receive a traditional academic training, instead he was apprenticed to a local decorative painter. Travelling as far afield as Madrid and Paris before the turn of the century, Hodler was initially influenced by the realism of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) and Camille Corot (1796–1875). Later he developed his own style, which was closer to Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), who had originally studied with the Romantics. From 1891 onwards, Hodler turned to Symbolism - developing an innovative approach which he called "Parallelism". He is also seen as a harbinger of Expressionism. He painted portraits, historical and a quantity of mythological painting, as well as landscapes. He remained in relative obscurity until the age of 50, when he finally received an award for his most famous painting: The Night (1891, Kunstmuseum, Bern). From 1910 onwards he received honours and commissions both at home and internationally. In the German-speaking countries, Hodler is considered one of the founders of Modern Art. For more, see: Post-Impressionism in Germany (c.1880-1910).

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Artistic Training

Hodler was born in Bern, in 1853, into a poverty stricken family. His father was a cabinet maker, and when he died, Hodler's mother remarried a painter and decorator. Eventually all of Hodler's family, parents and siblings would die of disease, instilling a powerful sense of mortality in the artist. He became an apprentice firstly with his step-father, after which he was sent to Thun to work with a local artist. His first specialty was conventional landscape painting of Alpine views, which he sold to tourists. At the age of 18, he walked to Geneva, the city in which he would spend most of his adult life. Here, he began to carve out what would be a slow career as a professional artist.

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 (1801–1884) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), 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". Hodler’s 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 Basel).


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 d’Orsay, 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.

Landscape Painting

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 Museum.
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 the world.

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