Oil on canvas, H. 0.66 m; W. 1.55 m

Signed lower right: F. Hodler.

Provenance: Max Ras Collection, Basel
Private Collection, Switzerland
Sale Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, Zürich 2002, no. 44
Private Collection, Switzerland.

  • Jura Brüschweiler, cat. exp. Ferdinand Hodler, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1983, p. 144.

Our work is a painted study of a couple of lovers which prepares the central section of a large composition, Love, on which Hodler began to work at the end of 1907. The motif of the loving couple lying down was depicted by Hodler for the first time in The Night (Bern, Kunstmuseum, 1889-1890). This painting, a manifesto of Holder’s symbolism was prohibited from exhibition by the city of Geneva because of its obscenity, but was displayed in Paris triumphantly. The loving couple in the lower right of The Night was for Hodler the starting point for a series of studies that led to Love.
Mühlestein describes Hodler’s vision of this work as a frieze of couples lying down, all facing in the same direction, around a large closed room with skylights. According to Hodler, “it should have given the impression of a sea of human passion, eternally moving in low tide and high tide, in a movement that has neither beginning nor end” (Mühlestein / Schmidt, 1942, p. 424).

In May 1908, Hodler exhibited the first version of Love at the large Kunstausstellung in Dresden. The work was hung on the back wall of the main gallery, so that it dominated a whole series of rooms. Love continually provoked strong reactions from the public (Mühlestein / Schmidt, 1942, p. 424, note 2).

“Love is one of Hodler’s most important figure paintings, not only because of its large format (the final version with three couples lying down measured H. 1,45m; L. 5,68m), but above all because this work put an experience that is common to all on a pedestal, in an original way. The three couples evoke three moments of a sexual act; the lovers’ desire, union and repose. Hodler’s composition principle of “horizontal parallelism” here reaches its fulfilment. The accomplishment of human love is expressed by the rhythmic arrangement of the figures. They form an undulating line and become rounded in a “Gestus”, as Hodler calls it, in a movement on itself.” (Jura Brüschweiler, exh. cat. Ferdinand Hodler, Kunsthaus Zürich, 1983, p. 144).

The parallelism defined by Hodler as the repetition of similar forms is more than a principle of formal composition. It is a moral and philosophical thought, relying on the observation that nature has a form of order, based on repetition and that men are in a way similar to each other.

The fact that Hodler chose the subject of love is not surprising given the attraction and timeliness of the theme of sexual relations at the beginning of the 20th century. The bourgeois morals of the 19th century, with their repression of sexuality and rigid roles of men and women had provoked strong compensatory phenomena that were expressed explicitly in art. “In no domain of public life is a transformation accomplished – by various factors such as the emancipation of women, Freudian psychoanalysis, the cult of the athletic body and the liberation of youth – within a single generation that is as total as in the relations of the sexes.” (Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von gestern, Vienna, 1952, p. 70).

In 1909 on the advice of Eberhard Grisebach, the German architect and philosophy student, Hodler dismantled The Night that had been in three parts: the artist removed the middle couple and re-assembled the two side sections to form a new painting. The concept of depicting love as a three phase act was thus destroyed and the climax of love, the union itself, was replaced by a void. (Ferdinand Hodler. Die Zeichnungen im Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, 1999, p. 62). Later, Hodler apparently regretted this transformation of the work and considered creating a new version of it, without however doing so.

When it was exhibited at the Künstlerhaus in Zurich in 1909, Love caused a scandal. Some visitors were shocked by this “immoral” painting and tried to pierce it with their umbrellas and canes to such at point that the museum’s management was forced to put guards in front of the work.

When Josef Müller, a young industrialist from Solothurn, acquired Love the same year, Hodler invited this enthusiastic collector to Geneva and gave him his self-portrait Selbstbildnis mit dreißig Jahren. Thanks to the activity as a documentary photographer of his sister, Gertrud Müller who also became a major collector and friend of Hodler, we have precious photographs that show us Hodler’s working methods. With her husband, Gertrud Müller founded the Fondation Dübi-Müller in 1964, which houses a large part of their collection and which was integrated into the Solothurn Museum of fine arts in 1981.


This painting is certified by the Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art as an authentic work by the hand of Ferdinand Hodler.