Hodler’s particular interest in the portrait towards the end of the 1880s is reflected in the idea of a course on the subject that he offered to teach at the University of Geneva (which declined it). From a practice inspired by the use of chiaroscuro in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which the flesh tones of faces stood out against dark grounds, he had moved towards a lighter palette and concentration on the gaze, which led him to prefer frontal poses. While his first models were working class men (artisans or day labourers) or members of his close circle, he was now becoming established as one of the most sought-after portrait painters for the Swiss bourgeoisie and political elites.
Here, the plump figure of Louis Bourget stands out against a light green ground subtly enlivened by red tones. The surgical precision of the outline makes manifest the importance of drawing. The man, in his early thirties, faces us frontally although his body is at a slight angle. His colourful flesh contrasts with the whiteness of his stiff collar, brightened by a tie with a régate knot, and the dark mass of his three-piece suit. His posture relaxed, with his hands in his pockets and his gaze calmly levelled at the artist, Bourget embodies self-assurance.
Doctor Louis Bourget was a privat-docent at the University of Geneva in 1887. He would also be the author of poems and the illustrator of books expressing his passion for ornithology. Close to Hodler in his youth, he offered the artist his advice when his partner, Valentine Godé-Darel, fell ill in 1912. He very likely commissioned this portrait to help Hodler with his financial difficulties. The work was completed in 1889 and the doctor offered it to the Museum in 1910, after he had sent it back to Hodler to be signed, on which occasion the artist added an affectionate dedication: ‘To my Friend, Dr. Bourget’.
Oskar Bätschmann and Paul Müller (eds.), Ferdinand Hodler. Catalogue raisonné der Gemälde. Die Bildnisse, Zurich, Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art, Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2012.