The Night

7:00 AM

Ferdinand Hodler, The Night, 1890

Hodler’s painting is creepy. The setting is unclear. A group of men and women lie sleeping together. In their midst is a terrible figure who crouches on top of the artist, seemingly preying on him. The figure is obviously anthropomorphic, but it is unclear exactly what it is. Of course, its position on the man undoubtedly brings a question of sexual anxiety into play.

Does the figure represent death, a nightmare, or something far different? This painting immediately brings to mind Fuselli’s Nightmare. However, there is of course one key difference. Fuselli’s piece was born of a jealous rage; the painting was created in revenge against a love who had spurned his advances. In that work, the monster is Fuselli, and he crouches on top of the woman’s sleeping form. In this one, the identity of the monster is unclear. The only certainty is that Hodler himself is the victim.

Every bit as disturbing as the black shrouded creep is the way in which Hodler paints his subjects. The bodies seem at first glance accurate. They are also in unbelievably good shape. However, whenever I look at them I feel uncomfortable. There is something about the way in which the man in the back is contorted, or the way the flesh lumps in certain places on the sleeping figures—particularly the women—that creates in me a feeling of malaise. The men and women may on the surface appear to be the image of health, but their interesting sleeping arrangement and creepy bodies hint at something a little darker lying just beneath the surface.

I think that’s why this painting has stuck with me since I first saw it. I think it puts Fuselli to shame—it’s pretty much the most frightening painting I’ve ever seen. The French certainly thought so—to no one’s surprise, this painting was blackballed and Hodler was forced to exhibit it privately—even some of the radical painters at the avant-garde of the late 1800s lambasted the work. It would be another decade before Hodler was accepted into the fold of Parisian painters by his contemporaries.

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