Brief Encounters: Swiss Artist Ferdinand Hodler

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Early Life

Ferdinand Holder was born in Bern in Switzerland in 1853, the eldest of 6 children. Tuberculosis killed his father and his 2 younger brothers by the time he was 8 years old. As a result, his mother later remarried, marrying Gottlieb Schüpach, a decorative painter who had 5 children from a previous marriage. The family was poor and at the age of 9 young Hodler was put to work helping his stepfather to paint commercial signs. Hodler’s mother died when he was 13. Young Hodler was subsequently sent to the town of Thun to work as an apprentice to a local landscape painter, called Ferdinand Sommer. From him, he learnt the craft of copying prints of Alpine landscapes creating paintings to sell to the tourist trade.

In 1871 aged 18, Hodler travelled to Geneva to study under painter Barthelemy Menn. 1875 saw him in Basel where he studied the paintings of Hans Holbein. His painting consisted mainly of Swiss landscapes, figure compositions and portraits, painted in a very vigorous realistic style. Other influences played a part, such as his own spiritual crises and his desire to find refuge in an more innocent idealised world.

His Painting Develops

However from 1890 his work evolved, absorbing influences from many genre, particularly symbolism and Art Nouveau. His new style of painting emphasized the symmetry and rhythm he believed formed the basis of human society. A mystical, dreamlike quality pervades his painting resulting in an escape from the bourgeois cares of modern life. His painting Night, exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1890, emphasizes this new style.

Ferdinand Hodler filled his canvases with monumental and simplified flat figures. Ritualised gestures, rhythmic and repetitive lines  dominated his work, a style he referred to as Parallelism. He also painted several large-scale historical paintings often with patriotic Swiss themes. 1897 saw him commissioned to paint frescoes for the weapons room at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. His ideas and style proved controversial resulting in it being three years before he was allowed to create the frescoes.

In 1900 he received his first recognition, when he was awarded a gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair, for three of his paintings, Night, Eurhythmy and Day.

His Great Love

Hodler was married twice, but in 1908 he met Valentine Gode-Darel, who became his mistress. He was passionately in love with her, but in 1913 she was diagnosed with cancer. Hodler spent many hours by her bedside drawing, resulting in a remarkable series of paintings which documented her gradual decline.  Hodler was devastated by her death spending the next year isolated, occupying himself with painting 20 introspective self-portraits.

In 1914, he condemned German atrocities conducted by the shelling of Rheims in France. German museums withdrew Hodler’s work from their exhibitions in retaliation.

But by 1917 his health was deteriorating and at one point he considered suicide. However, although bedridden, he still managed to paint several views of Geneva from his balcony in the months before his death. Ferdinand Hodler died on the 19th of May 1918 in Geneva.  He was relatively unknown outside of Switzerland, Germany and Austria until quite recently. Most of Hodler’s work is in public collections in Switzerland, although there are some major paintings in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris in New York.

His Legacy

Ferdinand Hodler’s legacy is that his work embodies the Swiss federal identity. Perhaps because, many of his best-known paintings feature characters doing everyday jobs, rather than depictions of dignitaries. His famous painting, The Woodcutter is a prime example. This view is best summed up by the fact that in 1908 the Swiss National Bank commissioned Hodler to create two designs for their new paper currency. Controversially, he chose not to depict the images of famous men, but those of a simple wood cutter and a reaper instead. Both notes eventually appeared in circulation in 1911.

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