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The life and work of Ferdinand Hodler

Ferdinand Hodler, born 14 March 1853, continues to be regarded as one of the best known and most important Swiss painters of the 19th century. After viewing his works at the Berlinische Galerie’s current exhibition ‘Ferdinand Hodler und die Berliner Moderne’, I was compelled to know more about his life.

Exhibition 'Ferdinand Hodler und die Berliner Moderne'. Photo: Berlinische Galerie via Facebook

Born in Bern as the eldest of six children, Hodler was brought up in a life of financial misery. After the death of both his parents at a young age, he was sent away to Thun to apprentice with a local painter, Ferdinand Sommer. It was from Sommer whom he learned the craft of painting conventional Alpine landscapes; a subject which would feature heavily in his future works.

Ferdinand Hodler, 'Der Genfersee von Chexbres aus' (1905). Photo: Kunstmuseum Basel via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

In 1871, he travelled on foot to Geneva to start his career as a painter. While there, he attended science lectures at the Collège de Genève, and was also a student of the Swiss painter and draughtsman Barthélemy Menn. Four years later, he made a trip to Basel and studied the paintings of Hans Holbein. It was this period that would later influence Hodler’s many treatments of the theme of death.

The works of his early years consisted of landscapes, figure compositions and portraits, all of which heavily adopted the current style of realism. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his style evolved to combine influences from several genres such as symbolism and art nouveau.

In 1890, he completed Die Nacht, the work that marked his turn towards symbolist imagery. The work, however, which intended to symbolise death, created a scandal when submitted to the 1891 Beaux-Arts exhibition in Geneva, and was subsequently withdrawn from the show.

Ferdinand Hodler, 'Die Nacht' (1889-90). Photo: Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Yet a few months later, Hodler exhibited the same painting at the Paris Salon, where it received a far more favourable response and was championed by names such as Puvis de Chavannes and Rodin. Hodler was also well known for his later development of ‘parallelism’; a style that emphasised the symmetry and rhythm he believed formed the basis of human society.

The turn of the century, however, saw Hodler take on a new style with strongly coloured and geometrical figures. His previous realist landscapes were pared down to just the essentials, sometimes consisting of just a jagged wedge of land between water and sky. These new uses of colour and form were recognised as paving the way for the expressionism and abstract art of the 20th century.

Although Hodler had struggled financially for the majority of his artistic career, the turn of the 20th century also brought him much success. He won awards for three major works - Die Nacht, Die Eurythmy and Der Tag - at the Exposition Universelle, as well as received invitations to join both the Berlin Secession and the Vienna Secession. In 1904, he showcased 31 works in Vienna, an event which would soon bring him enhanced recognition and a sales success which would finally lift him out of poverty.

During the final years of his life, as his health was rapidly deteriorating, he returned to his former style and produced a number of landscape paintings from the balcony of his Geneva home. He later died on 19 May 1918 at the age of 65.

'Ferdinand Hodler, 'Self portrait' (1916). Photo: bildindex via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Much of Hodler’s work remains in public collections in Switzerland, while collections holding other major works include the Musée d’Orday in Paris, the Metropolitical Museum of Art in New York, and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Today, Hodler remains undoubtedly one of the most renowned Swiss painters and is regarded alongside names such as Cézanne, van Gogh and Munch as a key player in modern art.

Watch a virtual tour of the exhibition below:

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