Self-portrait of the 63-year old Artist with a smiling Expression
Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)

Self-portrait of the 63-year old Artist with a smiling Expression, 1916

Brown wash and graphite on wove paper with watermark P.M. FABBRIANO., H. 0.40 m; W. 0.35 m

Stamped signature lower right: Ferd. Hodler
Embossed stamp SUCCESSION FERD.HODLER with the number 48 inscribed in graphite, lower left

Provenance: Sold Kornfeld und Klipstein, Bern, 20 June 1973, lot 337
Sold Christie’s London, 30 June, 1981, lot 61 (ill.)
Rau Collection for Unicef, Inv. no. GR 1.860
Private collection.

The present drawing belongs to a series of self-portraits that Hodler executed in 1916, a particularly prolific year for the artist’s forays into self-portraiture, a sub-genre that sparked tremendous interest among modern painters and their audience at the turn of the 20th century. The Catalogue Raisonné of Hodler’s paintings by Oskar Bätschmann (vol. 2, p. 306 ff.) records eight paintings in this series – four of which (no. 974-977) show the artist in a very similar pose as the present work – and a lithograph, and makes mention of approximately eleven drawings in this group. The resemblances in pose, expression and format between some of these works across different media are due to Hodler’s characteristically systematic methods of work and drawing, including his frequent use of a Durer glass to transfer and revise images. In this particular work, however, the artist has applied a brown wash with a brush to emphasize his clear-eyed expression and forthright address of the viewer, and to clarify the principal contours and physiognomic features of the head – all which articulate character and form in a particularly direct, bold manner.

A letter of authentication for the present drawing from Dr. Hans A. Lüthy of the Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft (dated 29 April, 1981, Zurich), suggests that the drawing is a study for a lithograph, which Hodler dated April 1916. The artist produced the lithograph to satisfy the great demand for his work from collectors; impressions were made available to subscribers of the Geneva art periodical, Pages d’Art (Bätschmann, p. 306, fig. 3) in April and May of 1916, in conjunction with an article by Johannes Widmers on Hodler’s oeuvre. The lithograph further stimulated interest in Holder’s self-portraits, and a number of works in the 1916 series were sold the same year they were completed.

As Sharon Hirsch writes in her essay on Hodler’s self-portraits, the artist’s earlier self-portraits frequently included narrative and symbolic content regarding the figure, gestures, related objects and settings, whereas after 1900, Hodler’s self-portraits “offer us only his face as full expression of what he looks like, but more importantly what his current mindset is as he enters the twentieth century [… ].” She adds that in the last four years of his life (1915-1918), he made numerous self-portraits “that can be seen […] as a remarkable series, able to be viewed in themselves as striking artist’s statements but growing in complexity and in effect when seen together.” Hirsch interprets the series of frontal self-portraits from 1916 as representing the artist as a calm, confident entity. In 1915, he had struggled with the death of his life companion, Valentine, and he and his son had been ill. In 1916, however, both he and his son were in better health, and he began to teach advanced drawing at the Fine Arts Academy in Geneva (his alma mater), where he enjoyed immense esteem from his colleagues and students. He was also preparing for large, solo retrospective exhibition to take place in Zurich the following year.

Hodler created more self-portraits in 1916 than in any other year of his career, and in this remarkable series he presented himself as “an active and even virile older man who confronts his viewer (or himself, in the mirror)” (Sharon Hirsch, “Ferdinand Hodler’s Late Self-Portraits,” in Ferdinand Hodler, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, 2013, p. 149).