Born in 1853, the same year as Van Gogh, Ferdinand Hodler didn’t have the easiest start in life. His father scraped a meagre living as a carpenter & his mother was of peasant stock. By the time he was 8 years old, he’d lost his father and 2 younger brothers to tuberculosis. His mother Margueritte quickly remarried and her new husband brought 5 more children into the family making 13 children. His family was so poor he was sent out, at 9 years old, to work with his stepfather, a sign painter. After his mother died in 1867, Hodler was apprenticed to a local painter at age 14. There he learned to paint alpine landscapes, copying them from prints and peddling his wares to shops and to tourists in the Swiss city of Bern.
By his death he was one of the best-known Swiss painters of the 19th century. His formative works were portraits, landscapes, and genre paintings in a realist style. While his career developed, he continued to make and stylistically evole his (always excellent) landscapes and portraiture, he later concieved and adopted a unique, personal form of Symbolism.
He called his singular new art genre, Parallelism.
Before we get to his take on Symbolism, the more wild Paralellist imagery, it’s worth looking at a couple of Hodler’s realist paintings. He was technically excellent, a clinical draughtsman who could lay down oils with an uncanny, almost photographic precision. He’s recording, documenting, capturing moments.
Now Hodler moves from simply painting things to using his skills to convey and express his ideas. And he has many.
In 1890 Hodler presented the world with this. Night, (above) was his turning point, from realist to symbolist imagery. Night depicts 7 naked figures, all of them sleep but for one man suddenly awoken by a figure shrouded in black. Hello, death. Hodler submitted this painting to the Beaux-Arts exhibition in Geneva in 1891, the entwined nude figures created a scandal, the city’s mayor declared the work obscene and had it withdrawn from the show. Just a couple of months later, Hodler took his Night to Paris and showed it at the Salon where it was loved and championed by the “the founder of modern sculpture” himself – Rodin.
Berthe Jacques was Hodler’s second wife. She met the painter shortly after the scandal of The Night (above) had earned Hodler huge notoriety in Paris and back at home in Geneva. Sensitive to his fame as well as his charm, she became his model in 1892. Their affair was only confirmed in 1895. They married on March 11, 1898 in Bern.
Hodler believed that symmetry and rhythm formed the basis of human society and it was this thought that informs and drives Paralellism. The Chosen One (1893), is a good example of Hodler’s unique, one-man art movement. A groupings of figures is symmetrically arranged to suggest a ritual or dance. In the painting, Hodler presents womankind as embodying the desire for harmony with nature, the child represents innocence, hope for the future, potential and vitality.
In 1908, Hodler met Valentine Godé-Darel, who became his mistress, Hodler married twice, and whilst still living with his second wife, he met and took as his mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel. Five years later, with Valentine dying of gynaecological cancer, he began a series of paintings that recorded her decline. In January 1914, 3 months after the birth of their daughter, Pauline, Valentine underwent an operation and five months later a second. By of the next year she was dead.
During 1914, with life (new baby daughter) and death (of Valentine) brought sharply into focus at home, he took to publicly condemning the German atrocities conducted using artillery at Rheims. In retaliation, German art museums removed and excluded his work from their galleries.
Valentine’s death in January 1915 affected Hodler deeply and from 1916 he immersed himself in painting around 20 introspective self portraits.
By 1917 his health was deteriorating and in November of that year he became ill with pulmonary edema, and told his son he was considering suicide. Although mostly bedridden, Hodler painted several views of Geneva from his balcony in the months before his death on May 19, 1918.