Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
Ferdinand Hodler, Switzerland’s greatest painters, The Night, honorary citizen of Geneva
Ferdinand Hodler is one of Switzerland’s greatest painters; to many - the greatest. He placed on canvas the legendary history of his country and its humble, hard-working, honest, pious people. In his poetic landscapes one can perceive the cosmic rhythms of the universe and the structure of the Earth.
In his childhood he knew poverty, sickness and death. He was born at G?rzelen in the canton of Berne in 1853. When he was 6 the family moved to La-Chaux-de-Fonds, where the following year his father died. His mother married again - a painter and decorator named Sch?pbach, but then in 1867 his mother died. His step-father, an alcoholic, left for England and then he too died. Thus, at the age of 17 Hodler found himself an orphan.
He was then apprenticed to a German painter in Thun called Ferdinand Sommer, who employed young people on a production line to paint souvenir landscapes for the tourist industry.
At the age of 18, he left the Bernese Oberland and moved to Geneva to learn French and copy paintings at the Mus?e Rath. He lived in great poverty and survived by painting "views" and shop signs. He later described removing the door of his wardrobe every evening to make his bed, his military greatcoat serving as a blanket. But he was to meet his saviour in the form of the landscape artist Barth?lemy Menn, a professor at the ?cole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. Menn frequently brought his students to the Mus?e Rath and one day noticed Hodler. Menn was a friend of Corot, one of the forefathers of the Impressionists. He had also been a student of the great Ingres, and Ingres himself had been trained by David, the most famous painter of the Napoleonic period. Thus, between 1872 and 1877 Menn was able to give Hodler a thorough academic training in drawing and art theory. In particular, Hodler learned about the works of other artists, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Courbet, Holbein, Goya and D?rer. In 1877 he finished his training with Menn.
Although Hodler would do most of his painting in Geneva, he travelled all over Switzerland, often spending his summers in the mountain regions.
He employed a neighbour, Augustine Dupin, as his model and she would become one of his female companions from 1884 until her death in 1908. They did not marry but she was the mother of his son Hector. (Hector Hodler would make a name for himself as the promoter of Esperanto.) Despite his relationship with Augustine, in the summer of 1887 he met Bertha Stucki at D?rlingen near Interlaken. Two years later he married her at La Chaux-de-Fonds -she was 21, he 36 - and two years after that they were divorced!
In 1890 he painted one of his greatest masterpieces - The Night. This painting was selected to appear in the Geneva Municipal Exhibition at the Mus?e Rath in 1891 and again in 1896 but on both occasions was excluded by order of the mayor, Th?odore Turrettini (of whom we have not heard the last). Although it would be many years before Hodler was appreciated in his own country, he was now recognized throughout Europe as an important artist.
In 1896 the Swiss National Exhibition took place in Geneva. It was decided that Hodler and another artist called Daniel Ihly would paint typical Swiss figures to decorate the pillars supporting the building. Hodler painted twenty-five monumental masterpieces. However, at the beginning of 1896 the Central Committee of the exhibition (chaired by Turrettini) reviewed them. Eight were "refused" and "changes" were demanded in an autocratic manner of seven others! The politicians had the most ham-fisted confidence in their "views on art". The Genevan news-papers were scandalized and poured derision on Mr Turrettini’s Central Committee.
In 1894 he met Berthe Jacques, a secondary schoolteacher from a Genevan family. She became first his model and then his second wife. Between 1901 and 1916 he also maintained an amorous relationship with another model - Jeanne Charles. However, he would not meet the true love of his life until he was 55 years old -in 1908. Valentine God?-Darel was a porcelain painter and entirely different from the other women in his life. She was 35 years old, independent and self-confident. Sadly, in 1912 at the age of 40 she developed cancer, at the same time as becoming pregnant. Their daughter Pauline was born in 1913 and brought up by Hodler’s wife Berthe. Valentine God?-Darel clung on to life until 1915, being painted hundreds of times by Hodler in sickness -and in death.
In 1897 the director of the brand new National Museum in Zurich, Henri Angst, had the idea of decorating the walls of the armoury. A jury was appointed (not containing Angst) and was unanimous in selecting Hodler to paint The Retreat from Marignan -a work judged to be outstanding. However, Angst was horrified and did everything in his power to stop Hodler carrying out the task, such as obscuring the place foreseen for the mural, dismantling the scaffolding put in place for the artist, limiting access to the museum and refusing him weapons to use as models. Angst was a snob and was appalled that his brainchild was to be executed by an artist of such humble origins. This affair set in motion a national debate involving museum curators, the press, artists and critics, and the general public. Finally, in 1899 the Federal Council overruled Angst and instructed Hodler to begin work. In the same way that other artists have paid back their tormentors, Hodler painted allegorical pictures at this time that portray himself as a warrior overcoming his enemy -Angst.
In 1914 when German artillery shelled Rheims Cathedral Hodler, together with ninety-nine Genevan artists and intellectuals, denounced the deliberate destruction of an inter-nationally recognized cultural monument (the shrapnel holes can be seen to this day). Despite his great standing in Germany, he was immediately excluded from all German art societies to which he had recently been admitted. Such is nationalism.
Recognition came at last. In 1918 he was made an honorary citizen of Geneva and died there on 19 May.
Ferdinand Hodler (14.3.1853 - 19.5.1918) Die Nacht, 1890 Oel auf Leinwand; 116 x 299 cm Kunstmuseum Bern, Staat Bern
THE NIGHT (1890)
Hodler was 37 when he made this autobiographical painting on the theme of sleep and the fear of death, but also on the relationship between men and women. All the Michelangelo-like, shadowless figures appear to be naked and are draped in black sheets. Both the central figure and the man top right are Hodler himself, while the female figure seen from the back on lower right is his wife at that time-Bertha Stucki (this is the only time she appeared in one of his paintings). The figures in the foreground sleep peacefully; those in the background less so. The contented couple bottom right can be contrasted with the man and two women top left who seem slightly less at ease (the middle figure of this group could be Bertha again). In the middle lies a terrified young man (Hodler) with the figure of death placed squarely between his legs. Hodler had good reason to be preoccupied with dying, having grown up amidst grinding poverty and having witnessed the slow death of all his family from tuberculosis. His father died when he was 7, his mother when he was 14, his stepfather when he was 17, and his four brothers and one sister-Hodler was the oldest in the family-all died between his eighth birthday and the time he was 32. Nor is it unusual that Hodler should put himself in the picture. In all, he painted 100 self-portraits-more than any other painter except Van Gogh himself.