In The Night, Ferdinand Hodler portrays himself as having been rudely awakened by the figure of death. Around him are entwined men and women asleep, with self-portraits slipped in along with portraits of the two women with whom Hodler shared his life at that time: Augustine Dupain, his companion since the early days and mother of his son, and Bertha Stuckie, his wife from a brief and tempestuous marriage.
Just as Courbet did in The Studio, Hodler presents a period in his life in an autobiographical picture on the scale of a history painting.
For Hodler, the work's meaning is universal because it is symbolic: it does not represent a particular moment but evokes the very essence of night and death. In it, the artist combines a heightened realism and a strict decorative order to an extent which had hitherto never been equalled, and which became the trademark of Hodlerian Symbolism.
As in the work of Puvis de Chavannes, a painter much admired by Hodler and a great defender of The Night, the couples are placed in a two-dimensional setting where the rhythmic layout of the figures and the lines take precedence.
The sequencing of the figures according to a principle of symmetry and the search for frontality here are also one of the most stunning expressions of a principle called parallelism (defined by Hodler as the repetition of similar forms), which the artist made the key to his art throughout his life. Parallelism is more than a principle of formal composition, it is a moral and philosophical idea, relying on the premise that nature has an order, based on repetition, and that in the end all men resemble each other.
The realism of the nudes and the poses of these entwined couples in The Night caused a scandal in Geneva in February 1891. The painting was not accepted for the Beaux-Arts exhibition in Geneva.
Hodler organised a private exhibition, and used the admission fees to achieve an ambition he had frequently delayed: to establish his reputation in Paris. Admitted into the Salon for the National Society for the Beaux-Arts, The Night was singled out by Puvis and also by Rodin and some of the critics. Hodler felt it was a triumph, even if this first Parisian success did not lead to the glory he had hoped for. In fact, the artist exhibited in Paris every year until 1897 (except 1896), but he had to wait until 1900 and the Universal Exhibition to obtain a gold medal, again with The Night among other Symbolist paintings.