Ferdinand Hodler – The Disillusioned One (1892)

Sometimes pain can be overwhelming, stopping in its tracks the most basic instincts: moving, talking, eating, sleeping … the very will to live. Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler may have known a thing or two about pain, having lost both his parents and all five of his siblings to tuberculosis by the time he reached adulthood. The death of his lover and muse, Valerie Godé-Darel, due to cancer in 1915 made it clear that the shadow of death hovering over his life hadn’t left him. It was bound to stay and influence his art in dramatic ways.

Ferdinand Hodler - The Disappointed Souls
Ferdinand Hodler – The Disappointed Souls (1892)

By the 1890s, Hodler was making the transition from realism to a personalized form of symbolism, which he called parallelism. Parallelism was grounded in the symmetry and rhythm that the Swiss artist had observed in society. The style’s ritualistic nature is obvious in his more complex paintings, among them The Disappointed Souls. Five older men dressed in priests’ clothes are depicted suffering on a bench in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing around them except a desolate landscape. Their agony is palpable, but the symmetry and balance that Hodler pursued give the painting a rather absurd and unnatural air. Those men are not interacting in any way, each alone in carrying the burden of their despair, yet the manner in which they mirror each others’ gestures and poses would suggest the communality of human suffering. Thus, instead of being portrayed as individuals reduced to their own existential drama, they become part of a larger narrative.

Ferdinand Hodler - The disillusioned one
Ferdinand Hodler – The Disillusioned One (1892), oil on canvas

The Disillusioned One is, most likely, a study done for the previously mentioned painting, which focuses on the man from the left. I very much prefer this study to the final painting, as it shows and singles out a state of being that words could never be able to fully convey – the depths of one’s emotional turmoil.  The man depicted, sitting slightly hunched on a bench, his head bowed and with his hands in his lap as if in prayer, looks like he’s lost everything he’s ever had. Spirituality seems to be the last thread that he has left, as indicated by the worn-out priest’s clothes and his bare feet – a wandering monk of sorts, perhaps searching for redemption. Judging from his deeply expressive face, with the empty stare and the wrinkles taking over his forehead like waves, I would say that not even religion is enough for this man. He has lost all hope.

15 thoughts on “Ferdinand Hodler – The Disillusioned One (1892)

    1. I think I read somewhere that Hodler also lost his children to tuberculosis? But I’m not sure anymore, as I couldn’t trace back that source. In any case, death was all around this artist.

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  1. Don’t ask me why but the first thing that jumped at me were both the treatment of the spare landscape with a few flowers in the background and the parallelism, columnal composition of each figures: all made me think of Klimt…Can anybody see this too or am I simply seeing Klimt everywhere these days? 🙂

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    1. Ingrid, you have such a good eye! He was influenced by the Vienna Secession, so … you do have a point. But I see the resemblance more clearly in some of Hodler’s other works. What a wonderful affliction, to see Klimt everywhere. Pass it on, please!

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  2. That’s gotta be a study for the painting, as even the background is the same hill with the same shape of outcropping of plants (unless he painted this version after, for some reason). I rather prefer the large painting myself for sheer beauty of execution. It’s a very complex and satisfying composition with the rhythm of black shapes moving across it.

    Interesting biographical info. Artists had to deal with death a lot more, in general, in the past, and died younger themselves. Manet’s syphilis could have been cured in the present. One of the odd things about images such as this is that despite the suffering portrayed, it’s the beauty that ultimately is more compelling (for me, anyway). Perhaps an artist needs to translate suffering into beauty in order to justify it.

    Thanks for sharing another unique work, and keeping the love of painting and visual imagery alive…

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    1. Eric, I’m glad you liked ‘The Disappointed Souls’. Visually speaking, that would be the ‘winner’, except that I wasn’t going for a comparison here. I was simply presenting the context for the actual study. Personally, I had a better emotional connection with the latter. Yeah, it looks washed out and unfinished, there is no depth to it and all that, but this also brings more focus to the man’s suffering. I find it very raw and haunting.

      And I agree with you, transforming suffering into beauty is one of the most mesmerizing acts an artist can do. It’s pure magic.

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      1. Yeah, the “study” is more intimate and focuses on one person’s suffering, which then is a universal one, as we are each one person. Me, I’m just seduced by the beauty of the big painting. It’s best if different people like different things for different reasons.

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