Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc in the Morning Light, c.1918 Art Print
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( 1853-1918) (born in Gürzelen, Canton of Beme, died in Geneva). Swiss painter. After a great success, a sort of European triumph, his fame has declined steadily since his death. At present this selftaught painter is overestimated by some, given insufficient recognition by others, no doubt because of the duality of a talent which turned from an all-pervading gentleness to hardness. It is a strange fact that the Impressionist movement raged for over a quarter of a century without having the slightest effect on the man or leaving the faintest trace in his work. Hodler jumped straight from the gentle painting of Corot -- as it was taken over by the Barbizon painters -- to the pedantic harshness of the Munich school. How can such a surprising break be explained? One must bear in mind the ideas and feelings that were then common among the Swiss. For them there were two schools of painting, the French and the German -- Paris and Munich. As for Impressionism, they dreaded its fluidity, the subordination of line to colour, they were afraid of its daring ventures in colour. They thought the antidote was to be found among the professor across the Rhine, who, by stressing draughtsmanship, were producing Denners rather than Dürers.
At the age of nineteen Hodler entered the Éole des Beaux-Arts at Geneva, where he studied hard under Barthélemy Menn, a pupil of Ingres and friend of Corot. Hodler made his début with The Schoolboy ( 1871), a portrait in the manner of Holbein, which he painted at Langenthal during his holidays. While he was making portraits of labourers and artisans at work, such as cobblers, locksmiths, carpenters and watchmakers, he was at the same time painting in a very sober style on large, simple planes, landscapes that were luminous, limpid, perhaps a bit too precise yet never hard. But then came the break. In 1891 Hodler exhibited Night at the Société Nationale du Champ-de-Mars. The following year, in his Disillusioned Souls, which was the principal attraction of the Salon de la Rose-Croix, he showed himself to be infected with the disease that was then befogging the minds of so many of the vanguard -- Symbolism. To a rather roughhewn man, initiation into Symbolism could be disastrous. That is what happened to Hodler, who, thoroughly at home in depicting everyday life, now set himself to painting The Elect ( 1894) -a little boy kneeling before a miniature garden and dreaming, under the protection of angels, clad in nighigowns and ranged in a semicircle -and Eurythmics, 1895. This rather ludicrous mythology, although it did not exactly ruin him, did at least give him a taste for grandiloquence, as practised by the Germanic artists. From that time on his work consisted of a succession of large pictures on historical subjects, ranging from The Retreat from Marignan ( 1899) and The Truth ( 1903) to Departure of the Jena Volunteers ( 1908). Toward the end of his life Hodler painted lakes and landscapes in which the colours were more tastefully distributed. What was it that he lacked for creating work of a pronounced character? Somewhat like the Norwegian Edvard Munch, Hodler was exposed to conflicting influences and therefore produced work of uneven quality. And although he was a forerunner, in certain directions, of tendencies which were to appear after him, he was not capable of stamping his art with that profound spiritual life which communicates emotion. Reared in the hard school of Nature and poverty, Hodler was first and foremost a master of his craft. Perhaps the artisan in him was stronger than the artist. Some of his canvases have, none the less, a powerful significance. A sure draughtsmanship that is expressive and extraordinarily precise gives them lasting value.