The Dying Valentine Godé-Darel

Hodler, Ferdinand

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Aull, Felice
Founder and Editor Emerita
  • Date of entry: Mar-12-2015
  • Last revised: Mar-12-2015

Summary

Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler painted his model and lover Valentine Godé-Darel in a series of drawings and paintings after she became ill and was dying of cancer (of the reproductive organs). For a painter of that time to focus his/her work on a dying individual over a period of many months (1914-1915) was highly unusual. In this painting, Valentine's head and face are seen in side view in the left of the picture. She is lying down with her head partly elevated and sunken into a pillow. Her features are bony with high cheekbones and a prominent nose. Her eyes are closed, her mouth open. Blue is a featured color, forming the background as well as tinting her face. Hodler also favored blue in many of his landscape paintings. The woman's head and face are carefully drawn but the pillow and bedclothes are sketchy, drawing the viewer's attention immediately to the dying woman and holding it there.

Commentary

Although the viewer knows that the subject is dying, the impression that the painting makes is not horrifying. At least for this viewer, the painting is powerful and tremendously moving. Hodler's other paintings of Valentine's illness and dying, like this one, always show her alone. She is therefore entirely on display and the only thing in the painting that matters. Yet at the same time, the artist, her lover, is in the room with her, painting her (that is how these paintings were executed), so she is not really alone.

Other paintings in this series portray Valentine at different stages of her illness. For example, an earlier painting, "The Sick Madame Valentine Godé-Darel" depicts her sitting upright in bed, alert, eyes somewhat downcast but open, mouth closed. The background color is pink, as are her cheeks.

Later paintings show her head sinking further into her pillow, eyes always closed as she becomes weaker and emaciated. Finally, Hodler painted Valentine's dead body the day after her death. The focus is no longer on her face but on her entire body, fully clothed with shoes on her feet, lying on her back on a bed, hands folded at her waist. These later images are part of an article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, by Bernhard C. Pestalozzi, "Looking at the Dying Patient: the Ferdinand Hodler Paintings of Valentine Godé-Darel." (April 1, 2002 vol. 20 no. 7, 1948-1950) The author notes that physicians and family members may have difficulty confronting death and dying patients. These paintings, he states, "force the viewer to face the process of dying."

Hodler's motivation for creating these images of his dying lover are unknown, but perhaps we can get some idea of his frame of mind by referring to the contemporary work of Sue Coe, who made drawings of her dying mother. " . . . when I make drawings, that's my truth. My feelings are in turmoil, and yet the pencil follows the truth." [see "At the Hospice (July 20)"] 

Primary Source

Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity. Published for a major 2012 exhibition at New York's Neue Galerie by Hatje Cantz, 11/30/2012. Contact D.A.P., Inc., 155 Avenue of the Americas, Second Floor, New York, N.Y., 10013-1507