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From Lake Geneva to NYC: Ferdinand Hodler at The Morgan Library

Compositional Study for View into Infinity
Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) Compositional Study for “View into Infinity,” 1910-1913. Musée Jenisch Vevey, Rudolf Schindler bequest.© Musée Jenisch
Vevey, Julien Gremaud.

By Gayle Conran

By definition, New York City is always a buzz, but for many of us, the mid-August slump in Manhattan is a real thing. Everyone has decamped for the Hamptons or Europe, and by now, you’ve more or less seen everything on your cultural bucket list. It’s the time when curators, producers, and locals catch their breath before the Fall season when our bucket lists will overfloweth again. So on a recent steamy August Tuesday, I was delighted to find myself staring up at Samuel Yellin’s flock of 648 wrought iron birds, Ceiling Grille (1928), in the cool Marble Hall of The Morgan Library at Madison and 36th Street before entering the east gallery exhibition Ferdinand Hodler: Drawings—Selections from the Musée Jenisch Vevey.

A Swiss artist, Hodler was best known for his early twentieth-century murals that rooted him within the eclectic, often dreamy Symbolist movement: think Picasso, Gaugin, and Klimt. Hodler’s works from this period are evocative of Grecian urns with flowing maidens against a flat, shallow backdrop, as seen in View from Infinity (1910-18), commissioned for the Kunsthaus Museum in Zurich. Yet the arc of his career included realism portraits, the abstract, and, later in life, modernist landscapes.

Figure Study for Day 1
Ferdinand Hodler (1853- 1918) Figure Study for “Day,” ca.1898 –1899. Musée Jenisch Vevey, Donation Rudolf
Schindler.© Musée Jenisch Vevey

The Morgan exhibition examines Hodler’s process, not the results. There are only a handful of his completed works on view. Most of the nearly 60 pieces are sketches that serve as illuminating rehearsals showing his journey to the final work. He used tracing and cut-outs to experiment with placement and meticulously notated his drawings with corrections.  In one example, a portrait of Swedish art historian Fredrick Robert Martin (1916-1917), he painted on a glass panel while his subject sat on the other side, then pressed paper to the surface to extract a copy. Hodler was as much a mechanic as he was an artist.

Portrait of Berthe Hodler Jacques ca 1898
Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) Portrait of Berthe Hodler-Jacques ca. 1898. Musée Jenisch Vevey, Donation Rudolf Schindler.© Musée
Jenisch Vevey.

His second wife, Berthe, was a frequent model. Her staid portrait from ca. 1898 captures just a slight tilt of her head as riveting, wide blue eyes stare back at the viewer. It is sympathetic realism. So too, is the series of drawings of his ailing, longtime mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel, sketched during her decline and ultimate death from cancer shortly after the birth of their child. Our sympathetic Berthe subsequently adopted the child.

Study for Joyful Woman
Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) Study for “Joyful Woman,” ca.1911. Musée Jenisch Vevey, Donation Rudolf Schindler.
© Musée Jenisch Vevey, photograph :Julien Gremaud.

As Hodler painted in those later years, modern dance pioneers like Isadora Duncan were making impressions throughout Europe. That influence is seen as he breaks free of one-dimensionality for the sake of dancer-ly movement in the female bodies stretching and torquing in Day (1899-1900) and in the large-scale Study for Joyful Woman ca 1911, the lead image for the exhibition.

Hodler was the most important Swiss artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The exhibition is on loan from the Musée Jenisch Vevey, a neoclassical gem much like The Morgan, located along the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) in Vevey, Switzerland.  These artworks are part of a vast collection of more than 700 Hodler works assembled by Rudolf Schindler, an artist himself, that he donated to the museum.

The Hodler drawings are on view at the Morgan through October 1, 2023, and eventually return to the Musee Jenisch Vevey.


Gayle Conran has written about the arts for The Boston Globe, Playbill and other publications. A publicist and owner of ConranPR in New York City, she has a longtime association with Switzerland and the Canton of Vaud, where the Musée Jenisch Vevey is located. 

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