In April 1908, the Banque Nationale Suisse commissioned Ferdinand Hodler to illustrate the new 50 and 100 franc banknotes, which were to take the subject of rural labour. For the 50 franc note, the artist chose the theme of the woodcutter. When these were issued however, Hodler was disappointed by the effect the reduction in scale had had in depriving the figure of its dynamic impact. Besides this, realistic ornamentations tended to distort the ghostly landscape of the painting which had been designed to match the expressionism of the figure.
Fortunately, the disappointing reproduction was not the final chapter in The Woodcutter's story. In 1910, Hodler exhibited an enlarged version of the original which met with immediate success and he was commissioned to make copies of the picture. The version acquired by the Musée d'Orsay is striking by its arresting power, a power which is only accentuated by its being a not quite finished sketch.
The composition rests on the contrast between the verticals of the tree trunks and the diagonal of the man's body. The woodcutter is captured in the full energy of movement, encapsulating the tension of the frozen moment. Holder's transformation of the peasant into an heroic figure, immortalised in the midst of his labour, had only previously been achieved by Millet. The pale background and exaggeratedly low skyline magnify the almost superhuman figure of the woodcutter. He stands out against the sky; a relief augmented by the strange blue-grey oval of a cloud.
This great figure by Hodler - bridging symbolism and expressionism - is representative of the artist's later style.