Ferdinand Hodler's paintings of Swiss mountaintops have often been compared to Cezanne's famous paintings based on views of Mont Sainte Victoire. Apart from a similarity of motif, they could hardly be more different. Hodler shows no interest in the systematic buildup of his picture from foreground to distant peak, or in the reconstruction in terms of paint on canvas of the endless modulations of a wide landscape, exploring every facet and nuance of space and solidity before him. In Cezanne's landscapes, the air itself, even the sky, seems substantial and complex.
Hodler is far more concerned with a simple and immediate visual impact, with the blue space of sky in front of which his central, solid mountain stands out with sharp distinctness. He grasps impressively something of that breath-catching awe, that unbelievable elevation and brightness, that makes a mountain smitten with sunlight seem like a vision.
Hodler, in fact, as Robert Rosenblum points out in his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, was one of the late nineteenth-century painters whose work indicates the survival, and continued vitality, of the Romantic period. Cezanne's late work is peculiarly non-Romantic. Hodler was a visionary, and his work is closer to such a contemporary as Van Gogh, or to earlier artists like Blake or Samuel Palmer (two artists with quite different styles and subject matter, but a strong fraternity of feeling) than it is to artists who just happen also to paint mountains.
There are even profoundly Romantic paintings of mountain peaks, by Turner, for example, or by Friedrich, from which Hodler's differs markedly. In these the emphasis is laid on the sheer drama of climb and distance. From the foreground under the viewer's feet the vistas surge away and up to a vast, expansive remoteness.
The indefiniteness increases with the distance, and ''aerial perspective'' - a means painters used to make things retreat and vanish into intangible atmosphere - was employed as a tool to evoke the sensation of sublime extent and terrible heights and depths.
Hodler's mountain images are not of this kind. If anything, their vivid reality, their startling presence, seems to make them come forward, towards the viewer. The ground below them is often swathed in curling mists, and any suggestion of foreground is entirely missing. It is as though he were concentrating on a selectively magnified image seen through binoculars or a zoom lens. Perhaps it was this enlargement which suggested the phrase paysages planetaires (planetary landscapes) to Hodler: he was bringing the far away up close, like a planet seen through a telescope.
At the same time the exaltation and apartness of mountain summits are captured, as is the pure lucidity which has become a commonplace experience of air travel when the plane lifts above the clouds and one is suddenly on a different level, in different light, in another visual universe.
Though the cosy Kentish sepias of Samuel Palmer, with their pastoral sentiment, their richly dark patterning of vegetation, their hint of a fruitful Eden, are a century and a continent away from Hodler, nevertheless on the level of ''the visionary,'' the two painters have something profoundly in common. A vivid, intense clarity in the delineation of their inspired image of landscape is one such factor. Both are trying to make the visible express a spiritual intensity. Palmer called his imaginative/natural landscapes ''visions of the soul,'' and while they are a miniature setting of dells and rounded hills, something of the great beyond does cast its light over them.
They are contained by the crystalline air of a poetic ''paradise.'' Hodler's ''paradise'' is magnificent and alpine and bracing, a rarefied grandeur, uncompromisingly stated and surprisingly realistic. Yet either painter might have written the following about their pictures: ''often, and I think generally . . . the distant hills seem the most powerful objects in colour, and clear force of line: we are not troubled with aerial perspective in the valley of vision.'' It was, in fact, Palmer who wrote it in 1825, but for both artists the strong nearness of the distant hills was a great deal more than the cool observation of an atmospheric phenomenon: it was seeing in nature what Palmer also called the ''proscenium of eternity.''