Ferdinand Hodler

Photographische Rundschau und photographisches Centralblatt. Zeitschrift für Freunde der Photographie, 20. Jg., Heft 23 (1906).
© Klimt Foundation, Vienna

The Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler created portraits, landscapes and monumental figural depictions, characterized by clear shapes and colors and by his composition principle of “Parallelism.” He was a representative of Symbolism and repeatedly presented his works at the Vienna Secession and in many international exhibitions.

Ferdinand Hodler was born in Bern on 14 March 1853 as the eldest son of Margareta and Johann Hodler. The family lived in humble circumstances. After his father’s premature death, his mother married the house painter and decorator Gottlieb Schüpbach, from whom Hodler received his initial artistic training when he was still attending elementary school. When Hodler was 14 years old, he also lost his mother to tuberculosis. Around 1868, he began an apprenticeship with the painter Ferdinand Sommer in Thun, who specialized in views and at whose studio Hodler painted landscapes in the style of François Diday and Alexandre Calame to be sold to tourists. Hodler discontinued his apprenticeship and moved to Langenthal, where he made a living selling landscapes, which he signed from 1871.

Hodler went to Geneva to continue his education in 1872: At the Musée Rath he copied paintings by Diday and Calame and won a five-year scholarship for the painting class of Barthélemy Menn, then director of the École des Beaux-Arts, from 1873. Over the next few years, Hodler regularly participated in tenders, competitions and exhibitions in Switzerland and abroad, traveled to Paris and Madrid and attended lectures and courses in Geneva on anatomy, philosophy, literature, English, physics and mechanics. He began turning to plein-air painting and moved into a studio at Grand-Rue 35 in 1881.

From 1885 he regularly discussed idealistic and Symbolist concepts with his fellow artists and writer friends and enjoyed growing artistic success. Hodler was not allowed to exhibit his first important monumental work Night (1889/90, Kunstmuseum Bern) at the Musée Rath for moral reasons in 1890, but he was able to present the painting publicly on his own initiative at the Wahlgebäude in Geneva. In the spring of 1891, the panel of the “Salon du Champ-de-Mars” – whose members included Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Auguste Rodin – unanimously accepted Night for their exhibition in Paris. Hodler subsequently participated in various other exhibitions, including the “Salon Rose + Croix” at the renowned gallery Durand-Ruel in Paris.

In his works, Hodler was now increasingly exploring the pantheistic unity of humanity and nature. His modern design for the fresco Retreat from Marignano for the Armory Hall of the Swiss National Museum in Zurich sparked heated debates in 1897. This monumental commission consumed so much time and energy that Hodler was even forced to decline Gustav Klimt’s invitation to the “1st Exhibition” of the Vienna Secession.

International Breakthrough and Viennese Network
Hodler’s international breakthrough was marked by his participation in the Venice Biennale in 1899 and in the “Paris World’s Fair” in 1900, where he exhibited the painting Day and won a gold medal, as well as by his becoming a member of the Berlin Secession. In the same year, he presented the Marignano side panels at the epochal “8th Secession Exhibition” in Vienna, which was dedicated to arts and crafts and initiated a shift towards Stilkunst. The Secession made Hodler a corresponding member and presented Hodler’s paintings The Chosen One (1893/94, Kunstmuseum Bern) and Spring (1900/01, Museum Folkwang Essen) at their “12th Exhibition” in 1901, together with works by Jan Toorop and Fernand Khnopff.

On the invitation of Dr. Anton Loew – the founder of the famous Loew Sanatorium – Hodler spent seven weeks in Vienna in the winter of 1903 in order to paint a replica of the first version of The Chosen One, which had been purchased by Loew. He made a stop in Munich on his way back and was accepted as a corresponding member of the Munich Secession on the recommendation of Max Klinger. In June, Carl Moll and Koloman Moser visited Hodler in Switzerland to select paintings for the “19th Exhibition” of the Vienna Secession. At this exhibition, Hodler was the guest of honor, presenting 31 of his works and designing the exhibition poster. Journalists such as Franz Servaes, Ludwig Hevesi and Berta Zuckerkandl reported enthusiastically about his oeuvre, which was to have a lasting influence on Vienna’s art scene. During their sojourn in Vienna, Hodler and his wife Berthe stayed at the house of the industrialist and photographer Friedrich Viktor Spitzer, which had been built by Josef Hoffmann, on Hohe Warte and socialized with the artists Carl Moll, Kolo Moser and Hugo Henneberg – Spitzer’s neighbors in the “Künstlerkolonie,” whom Hodler knew via the Secession – as well as with the collector Carl Reininghaus.

Following the example of the so-called Klimt Group, several corresponding members also left the Vienna Secession in April 1906, among them Ferdinand Hodler. Another point of contact between Ferdinand Hodler and Gustav Klimt was the “II. Ausstellung des Deutschen Künstlerbundes” [“2nd Exhibition of the Association of German Artists”] in 1905, where both artists were given their own rooms. Hodler presented 12 works in the exhibition and was also a member of the panel.

From 1907, Hodler wrote aesthetic notes on his composition principle of “Parallelism.” Hodler himself felt that his work Lake Thun with Symmetrical Reflection (1909, Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva) best exemplified this concept. As director of the Miethke Gallery, Moll organized a solo exhibition of Hodler’s works in the winter of 1909/10. Hodler had already ceded the rights concerning the reproduction of his works to the gallery, which also acted as a publishing company, in 1905.

Hodler was friends with fellow artists such as Emil Orlik, Auguste Rodin and Hoffmann. The latter also designed the interior of Hodler’s luxurious apartment at Quai du Mont-Blanc 29 in Geneva in 1913, which was executed by the Wiener Werkstätte. After the onset of World War I, Hodler signed a manifesto in 1914 protesting the bombing of the Notre Dame cathedral in Reims by German troops. This resulted in his exclusion from all German artists’ associations. From 1916 to 1917 he taught drawing at the Geneva École des Beaux-Arts and primarily painted mountainous landscapes, developing a freer use of shapes, colors and lines.

Ferdinand Hodler received many awards and honorary titles and was a member of several artists’ associations in Switzerland and abroad. In 1917, the Zurich Kunsthaus showed his most comprehensive solo exhibition with about 600 works. It was also at the Zurich Kunsthaus that the exhibition “Ein Jahrhundert Wiener Malerei” [“A Century of Viennese Painting”] opened in 1918. The exhibition was curated by Moll and featured a special room dedicated to Klimt with 15 of the artists’ works. According to Berta Zuckerkandl, Hodler had already implored her in 1917, “[…] to arrange for a Klimt exhibition in Switzerland.”

Not only did his parents and siblings die prematurely, Hodler also lost two lovers and models – Augustine Dupin, with whom he had a son called Hector, and Valentine Godé-Darel, mother of his daughter Pauline Valentine (called Paulette) – both of whom he painted on their deathbeds. Following a brief marriage to Bertha Stucki (from 1889 to 1891), he married Berthe Jacques in 1898, with whom he lived until his death on 19 May 1918.

Literature and sources

  • Franz Servaes: Sezession. Der Monumentalmaler Hodler, in: Neue Freie Presse, 19.01.1904, S. 1-4.
  • Beatrice Meier: Ferdinand Hodler, in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/019084/2006-11-06/ (05/08/2020).
  • Hans-Peter Wipplinger (Hg.): Ferdinand Hodler. Wahlverwandtschaften von Klimt bis Schiele, Ausst.-Kat., Leopold Museum (Vienna), 13.10.2017–22.01.2018, Vienna 2017.
  • Brief mit Kuvert von der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs in Wien an Ferdinand Hodler in Bern, unterschrieben von Gustav Klimt (12/20/1897). FH-1020-0167.
  • Berta Zuckerkandl: Wien, in: Die Kunst für Alle. Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur, 19. Jg. (1903/04), S. 286.
  • N. N.: Austritt aus der Wiener Secession, in: Deutsches Volksblatt, 22.04.1906, S. 10.
  • Berta Zuckerkandl: Ein Jahrhunder Wiener Malerei, in: Fremden-Blatt, 01.06.1918, S. 1-2.
  • Ferdinand Hodler. Catalogue raisonné der Gemälde. www.ferdinand-hodler.ch/hodler.aspx (04/25/2022).
  • Tobias G. Natter, Niklaus Manuel Güdel, Monika Mayer, Elisabeth Schmuttermeier, Rainald Franz (Hg.): Hodler, Klimt und die Wiener Werkstätte, Ausst.-Kat., Kunsthaus Zurich (Zurich), 21.05.2021–29.08.2021, Zurich 2021.
  • Monika Meyer: Der »unbekannte« Anton Loew. Anmerkungen zur Provenienz von Gustav Klimts Judith I, in: Tobias G. Natter, Niklaus Manuel Güdel, Monika Mayer, Elisabeth Schmuttermeier, Rainald Franz (Hg.): Hodler, Klimt und die Wiener Werkstätte, Ausst.-Kat., Kunsthaus Zurich (Zurich), 21.05.2021–29.08.2021, Zurich 2021, S. 80-95.
  • Regula Bolleter: Wien 1904, in: Oskar Bätschmann, Paul Müller (Hg.): Ferdinand Hodler. Catalogue raisonné der Gemälde., Band 4, Zurich 2018, S. 121-131.
  • Andreas Beyer, Bénédicte Savoy, Wolf Tegethoff (Hg.): Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon. Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Band LXXXIII, Berlin - New York 2014, S. 480.