Sunday, 29 November 2009

Ferdinand Hodler
The Night (Die Nacht), 1889
Oil on canvas 116 x 299cm
Kunstmuseum, Berne
Not Seen

Hodler was 37 when he made this autobiographical painting on the theme of sleep and the fear of death, ten years before Sigmund Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Both the central figure and the man top right are Hodler himself, while the female figure seen from the back on lower right is his wife, Bertha Stucki (this is the only time she appeared in one of his paintings).

All the figures appear to be naked and are draped in black sheets, but despite it being “night”, the scene is so well lit that the figure cast no shadows. The figures in the foreground sleep peacefully; those in the background less so. The contented couple bottom right can be contrasted with the man and two women top left who seem slightly less at ease. In the middle lies a terrified young man (Hodler) who has woken up with the figure of death placed squarely between his legs.

Hodler had good reason to be preoccupied with dying, having grown up amidst grinding poverty and having witnessed the slow death of all his family from tuberculosis. His father died when he was 7, his mother when he was 14, his stepfather when he was 17, and his four brothers and one sister all died between his eighth birthday and the time he was 32.

The painting was completed after a serious psychological crisis and marked a break with realism of his earlier work, linking him with the symbolist movement then spreading throughout Europe. Hodler named his take on symbolism, "parallelism", characterised by large format paintings, with monumental stylised figures and a repetition of forms that provides a sense of harmony within the composition. It was this striving for a sense of unity in his work influenced his decision flatten the picture surface; painting the figures with sharp outlines (softer edges would imply depth), no shadows and no perspective.

Whilst I haven’t actually seen the painting I find it hard to believe that the work will have a melancholic aura, despite the content of the painting and the ideas behind it. The stylised treatment seems to rob the image of any deep psychological content leaving just the theories and sensibilities that were “of their time”, but don’t speak to me.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Yes, it is an interesting painting (particularly with its sad autobiograpical background you pointed out!) which reminds me in its style and its existential theme of other paintings at that time (Munch; the early Picasso, La Vie)- different phases and stages of life every individual might get once involved in are depictured (togetherness and lonileness, sleep, sexualtity, death, sorrow, angst hauting the human beings often during the night... -lined up in a row of images; sadly, we can see the whole painting only after having clicked on it)- yes, the loss of any shadow is really strange and emphazises the cold - strong-pitiless look of the painter at life!
    The sleeping female figure in the foreground left could remind of a figure you himself painted?
    Hodler whose painting- as I read- at first in the Calvin-Genf was not allowed to get exhibited because of being too "sittenlos" (against the moral standards of that time) might have been influenced indeed by the deeply psychological literature around that turn of the century (I very appreciate)! It was the 'zeitgeist' (a typical German word!) we might find here again- on the other side a theme that may remain actual for ever! Thanks for the detailled- fine analysis! The most fascinating figure is for the darkly dressed one: the death- the sorrow- the angst..., in any case very threatening and taking possession of the man!

  2. Thanks for pointing out the problem with the image - this sometimes happens with a wide one! Fixed it now. Yes I too read that his painting was considered very shocking at the time even though it follows a classical depiction rather than Courbet's realism. You are right that like Munch, the themes deal with the relationship between men and women, but the way he expresses it completely different. Strange that today we can still relate to the emotion in Munch's work, but find Hodler very cold.

  3. Another biographical note, the woman in the bottom right is Hodler's ex-wife and the woman in the bottom left is Hodler's lover, both of whom left him.

    It is my understanding that this was a major catalyst in Hodler's psychological break.

    1. Edit:
      So I guess the women didn't leave him until later, they divorced in 1891 and the woman in the bottom left was his former mistress.