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 mythological paintings, 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.


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 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.

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.


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.

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.

He died in Geneva in 1918.”

Although he was respected for his portraits my preference is for the landscapes. Colour, repetition of elements/shapes and an impressionistic feel to mountain scenes with their misty, layering.

‘The Beech Forest (Bois de Frères) 1885’

‘Lake Thun, Symmetric Reflections 1905’

‘Forest Stream at Champery 1916’

‘The Grand Muveran 1911’

(Information on Hodler’s biography from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/ferdinand-hodler.html – Accessed 31 March 2014)


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