At the end of the nineteenth century Hodler was one of the leading Symbolist painters. His creative force, his taste for decoration and his simplified painting are reminiscent of Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes, the undisputed masters with whom he is often compared. However, Hodler remains relatively unknown in France, whereas in Switzerland he is considered their great painter, and in Germany and Austria he is regarded as one of the founders of modern art.
Ferdinand HodlerSelf-portrait© Musée d'Art et d'Histoire / photo Bettina Jacquot-Descombes
This exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay offers a real opportunity to rediscover Hodler, with eighty paintings, many on show in France for the first time, and about thirty paintings and photographs.
From Berne to Geneva: difficult beginnings
Hodler's arrival in Geneva at the end of 1871 marked his true artistic début. Up to this point, he had studied with his father in law, a sign painter, then with Ferdinand Sommer, a specialist in alpine views for tourists. But for the young Hodler, born into a very modest family in Berne in 1853, this was more an apprenticeship for a craftsman than for an artist. His father, a cabinet-maker, died when Hodler was still a child. The eldest of six children, Hodler was then orphaned at the age of fourteen, but he was determined to do whatever was necessary to achieve his ambition to be an artist.
Ferdinand HodlerYoung girl with poppy© Kunstmuseum, Bern
Once he had moved to Geneva, then the main artistic centre in Switzerland, Hodler was noticed by Barthélemy Menn, a teacher at the Geneva School of Drawing, and studied with him between 1872 and 1877. This apprenticeship with Menn, a friend of Corot and former pupil of Ingres, was a defining experience for Hodler: Menn liberated him from the convention of the picturesque and based landscape painting on measurement, drawing and patient observation of the subject. He completed Hodler's visual and artistic cultural education, and introduced him to French painting. Courbet's work was to have a significant influence on him.
His self-portrait, The Student, a profession of faith, shows him beginning his life as an artist. It was painted in 1874, coinciding with the first public appearances of Hodler's work. Hodler exhibited mainly in Geneva, and entered competitions in the hope of winning prizes. He made his ambition clear by trying all genres: paintings about Swiss history and on Swiss themes, at a time when this country was looking for an artistic identity and a national painter, as well as commissioned portraits, landscapes and genre paintings.
Ferdinand HodlerBois des Frères© Kunstmuseum Solothurn
Harsh realism was a feature of Hodler's painting: it disconcerted the critics of Geneva, who for a long time were divided into two opposing camps: one censured his indulgence of ugliness; the other praised the originality of an art which was paving the way for a Swiss school of painting. Although he had achieved some recognition, Hodler had difficulty making a living from his painting. His stay in Madrid in 1878 was a happy, although brief, interlude against a background of extreme financial difficulties.