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Odilon Redon Photo

Odilon Redon

French Painter and Printmaker

Movements and Styles: Symbolism, Les Nabis

Born: April 20, 1840 - Bordeaux, France

Died: July 6, 1916 - Paris, France

Odilon Redon Timeline

Important Art by Odilon Redon

The below artworks are the most important by Odilon Redon - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Guardian Spirit of the Waters (1878)

Guardian Spirit of the Waters (1878)

Artwork description & Analysis: A large head held aloft by wings floats above a tranquil sea, gazing upon a small sailboat with enormously expressive eyes. Seagulls flit through the air and skim the water's surface, while the water stretches out toward the distant horizon. A delicate halo surrounds the head, giving the strange creature a benevolent, divine aura despite its brutish features. With its realistic depiction of dreamlike imagery, The Guardian Spirit of the Waters anticipates twentieth-century Surrealism.

When the artist's father, Bernard Redon, was a young man, he travelled from France to Louisiana in order to try and recoup the family's lost wealth. While there, he met and married Redon's mother. On their later return to France, Odile was pregnant with Odilon, who was subsequently born in Bordeaux. The artist often regretted that he was not born at sea, "a place without a country on an abyss," which he perhaps felt would have better corresponded to the origins of his visionary sensibility, This work could thus be seen as representing a kind of alternative birth for Redon, signifying his awakening artistic consciousness.

The drawing is typical of Redon's noirs, in which he manipulated the charcoal medium in order to achieve a rich array of tones and textures. The artist employed wiping, stumping, incising and added touches of chalk on cream-colored treated paper, and often allowed untouched areas of the sheet to shine through for highlights.

Charcoal and chalk on paper - Art Institute of Chicago

Cactus Man (1881)

Cactus Man (1881)

Artwork description & Analysis: A man's head emerges from a flowerpot, his neck rising upward like the stalk of a strange hybrid plant. Delicate thorns cover his skin and head, giving him a cactus-like appearance while also conjuring Christ's crown of thorns, or other similar martyrs. With large dull eyes, a flattened nose, and wide lips, the head has an expression that is both observant and indifferent. The vase is decorated with an image of an Amazon slaying a man, referring to the Greek myth of women warriors whose conflation of feminine and masculine traits echoes the conflation of human and plant forms in the drawing.

The drawing may be related to an exhibition Redon saw in Paris in 1881 featuring the inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego. The native South Americans on display, which Redon described as "haughty, cruel and grotesque," had a profound if complicated impact on the artist: on the one hand he admired the purity and simplicity of the so-called "primitive" people, while on the other he recognized in them the fearsome barbarity of man's origins. Growing out of a square planter - a symbol of Western culture and containment - Redon's hybrid man-plant can thus be understood as an attempt to reconcile the two poles of human existence, nature and culture, wild and civilized.

Charcoal on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York

“The Eye, like a strange balloon moves towards Infinity,” from To Edgar Poe (1882)

“The Eye, like a strange balloon moves towards Infinity,” from To Edgar Poe (1882)

Artwork description & Analysis: An eyeball has morphed into a strange balloon, its gaze directed toward the heavens as it rises above the horizon. Instead of a basket containing passengers, the balloon carries a severed head on a platter, much like that of St. John the Baptist in the Biblical story of Salome. In the lower left, the fronds of a palm-like plant can be seen, and the sky is full of thick clouds.

Severed heads appear with great frequency in Symbolist art and literature, whether in stories of Salome or in more mysterious images such as this one. The head or eyeball dissociated from the physical body is a symbol for freedom from the constraints of everyday life, and the attainment of a higher plane of consciousness. As scholar and curator Jodi Hauptman writes, "floating up 'towards infinity', let loose from the limitations of body and mind, Redon's eyes are free to really see, beyond reality, beyond nature, beyond the visible."

This work was included in Redon's portfolio of six lithographs, To Edgar Poe, and is the most famous image from the series. The prints were not meant as illustrations of Poe's poems, but rather as "correspondences," to use Redon's term. A similarly evocative approach characterizes the poetry of Mallarmé and other Symbolists, who believed suggestion, rather than description, to be the highest goal of art. Meanwhile, the print's giant eyeball prefigures the extreme close-up of the sliced oculus in Luis Bunuel's Surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou.

Lithograph - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

The Smiling Spider (1887)

The Smiling Spider (1887)

Artwork description & Analysis: A strange smiling spider with ten legs is the subject of Redon's lithograph. The spider's round fuzzy body has a human face, with snub nose and a wide smiling mouth that reveals a row of tiny teeth. The creature tilts slightly to one side on its spindly legs, as if it had just descended from the ceiling via a silken thread. The gridded pattern on the floor gives a sense of three-dimensional space, but the realism of the setting only enhances the surprising effect of the subject (who has seen such a spider on their kitchen's tiled floor?). Redon based his print upon an earlier charcoal drawing, but the lithographic medium (which uses greasy ink or crayon applied directly to a smooth stone) was equally well-suited to the artist's exploration of the color black.

Redon was fascinated with the natural sciences, and, with the encouragement of his friend, the botanist Armand Clavaud, he studied anatomy, osteology, and microscopic life. He also frequented Paris's Museum of Natural History, which included exhibits of biological abnormalities, and attended lectures at the Ecole de medicine. Indeed many of his "monsters" were based on observation, but were transformed by the artist's imagination. It is the recognition of our humanity in these strange hybrid creatures - the goofy, toothy grin on a fuzzy spider - that makes them so appealing and repellant at the same time.

Lithograph - The Baltimore Museum of Art

Closed Eyes (1890)

Closed Eyes (1890)

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting depicts a figure with closed eyes, bare shoulders and a tight helmet of dark hair, seeming to rise out of the sea. The motif of closed eyes appealed to Redon, for whom the symbol evoked mystery, dream, meditation, and the interior life. At the same time, closed eyes can also connote death, which for the Symbolists represented the ultimate escape from the real world and the earth-bound limitations of conscious life.

Closed Eyes marked a turning point in Redon's career, when he began to embrace color for the first time in his art. Indeed, Redon based the painting upon an earlier charcoal drawing of the same subject. Here, though, the palette is still quite subtle. Redon employed thin washes of oil paint to give a translucent, ethereal effect, while the pale tones and three-quarter-length composition evoke Italian Renaissance marble portrait busts.

Closed Eyes has become something of a Symbolist icon (it was the first work by Redon to be acquired by a major French museum, in 1904), and most likely depicts Redon's wife, Camille Falte. Yet the ambiguousness of the figure's gender must be acknowledged, and is yet another signifier of the depicted detachment from the material world. The androgyne was a very popular subject for the Symbolists because of its association with the spiritual realm, and its inherently hybrid nature (Leonardo's images of St. John often portray him in a decidedly feminine manner, for instance). Finally, the ethereal surrounding space adds to the sense of the infinite, and the overall effect of the work is one of serene calm.

Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay

Baronne de Domecy (about 1900)

Baronne de Domecy (about 1900)

Artwork description & Analysis: This is one of several portraits that Redon painted of the wife of his friend and patron, the Baron de Domecy. Here he portrays the sitter amidst an abstract floral background. Her face and head have been drawn in a precise and realistic manner, using delicate strokes of graphite to define her features. The tan paper ground has been allowed to stand in for her skin, and its muted tones accord with her serious, withdrawn expression, as if she is lost in her own thoughts. In contrast to her monochromatic face, the Baronne's vivid red blouse suggests a more passionate soul than her reserved demeanor would indicate. Likewise, the profusion of floral motifs - which appear more decorative than real - gives the setting a dreamlike appearance, perhaps symbolizing her vivid interior life.

Pastel and graphite - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Bouquet of Flowers (ca. 1905)

Bouquet of Flowers (ca. 1905)

Artwork description & Analysis: The many floral still lifes that Redon created at the end of his career are among his most popular and recognizable works, and have been widely reproduced. Here, a variety of brightly colored flowers, delicately drawn in pastel, burst out of a decorative blue vase, which has been set against an abstract background rendered in rust, ocher, violet and pink tones. The vase, which is also decorated with a floral motif, seems to float in the space, rather than resting on any obvious surface. Several small butterflies hover around the bouquet.

Redon's pastel still lives seem familiar, yet simultaneously evoke the heightened images of eidetic, or photographic, memory. Redon described his flowers as being "at the confluence of two riverbanks, that of representation and that of memory." Indeed, the glowing colors and indeterminate setting help situate the bouquet within the realms of inner vision. Rather than a mere element of home decor, the flowers appear like an apparition, a marvelous figment of a fevered imagination.

Pastel on paper - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Night (1910-1911)

Night (1910-1911)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1910 Redon agreed to decorate the library of the country estate of his friend and patron, Gustave Fayet, an artist who had bought the medieval abbey in 1908 with the intention of restoring it. Given complete freedom on the project, Redon created two large panels, Day and Night, for the two walls, and a smaller panel over the doorway. Day, depicting four horses in homage to Delacroix's ceiling decorations for the Louvre (the Apollo Gallery) in a setting of golden hues and flowers, expresses the gaiety Redon associated with color. In the panels Redon retrospectively contemplates his own oeuvre, as Day evokes his color period and Night looks back upon his "noirs."

In Night, several figures occupy a landscape, with dark trees silhouetted against a golden light beneath a dark blue sky, floating winged heads, and profusions of plants and flowers and hovering butterflies. Madeline Fayet, the wife of Gustave, and her daughter Simone are depicted as two veiled women. The profiles of Gustave Fayet, his sons Leon and Antoine, and Camille Redon, are depicted to the right of the tree. Several musicians also appear, including Robert Schumann, the composer Déodat de Séverac, and pianist Ricardo Viñes.

By including musicians, Redon pays homage to the influence of music upon his own work. A violinist who sometimes performed publicly, Redon said, "music is a nocturnal art, the art of the dream." Night is itself dream-like, and the depiction of the figures in darker colors suggests that they inhabit the nocturnal world of sleep and reverie. The butterflies, as Redon said, were meant to be creatures of light that appeared out of the "chrysalis of the dark." While Redon acknowledges his noirs in the shadowy figures, the surrounding golden light mitigates the darkness, so that the scene evokes a kind of peaceful and imaginative paradise.

Tempera on panel - Abbaye de Frontfroide

Cyclops (1914)

Cyclops (1914)

Artwork description & Analysis: Polyphemus, the mythical one-eyed monster from Homer's Odyssey, peers out from behind a rocky hilltop while the captive nymph Galatea sleeps in her grotto, surrounded by flowers.

Redon often depicted scenes from classical mythology in his later pastels and paintings, and he must have been familiar with Ovid's version of the Polyphemus story. In his painting, as in the poem, the Cyclops falls in love with the sea nymph. However, he would also have been aware of Gustave Moreau's acclaimed works that depicted the story tragically in the 1880s.

Redon seems to contrast the elements to which the two figures belong, with the Cyclops rising out of the hard, rocky earth, and the nymph cradled within the sea grotto and its abundant, feminine flora. With his large, soft expressive eye that evokes the "dreaming head" of Symbolism, Polyphemus is not the man-eating monster of Homer's Odyssey, but rather a gentle, even whimsical, creature. Unlike Moreau, Redon does not treat the subject tragically or depict thwarted desire. Galatea's body curled to the side, her face sleeping partially hidden by her overreaching arm, suggests privacy, a turning to the inner world of dreams. And, rather than contemplating the nude nymph as she sleeps, Polyphemus tilts his head and looks toward the viewer with an almost inquisitive gaze. The result is to make the viewer, whose gaze is initially drawn to the nymph's form, aware of being watched by a giant who gently guards this inner vision.

Stylistically, the painting can be seen as a synthesis of Redon's work up to this point in his career, as it combines his early interest in oil painting with the color palette of his pastel period, along with an image of a "monster" that could have been taken from one of his noirs.

Oil on cardboard mounted on panel - Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo Netherlands



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Odilon Redon Photo

Related Art and Artists

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Artwork description & Analysis: Gauguin's late-century magnum opus, painted in Tahiti, communicates a story in three stages from right to left, each stage corresponding to a question in the painting's title, which Gauguin inscribed, notably without question marks, in the upper left corner. The first stage of life, on the far right, is that of childhood; the second stage of young adulthood; the last stage of life's impending closure, here found at the far left, where, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts." Unlike earlier attempts by Gauguin, this grand composition, derived partly from a long tradition of "stage-of-life" painting in Western societies, is not explicitly religious but, rather, more personal and obscurely spiritual. This is much in keeping with Gauguin's late-in-life retreat from European society into a culture native to what was then French Polynesia.

In employing such an evocative, yet oblique title, Gauguin alludes to his own increasingly philosophical and mystical tendencies of his mature years. He had always been linked by his contemporaries with a Symbolist movement in painting that was closely allied to French poetry of the 1880s and 90s, but rarely did he, himself, attach overtly philosophical or literary references to his canvases. In Where Do We Come From?, then, Gauguin is apparently looking back on a life spent largely apart from his own social and geographic wellsprings, and perhaps seeking mental, spiritual, and physical grounding in a world he consciously elected to serve as his "alternative reality."

Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Dining Room in the Country (1913)

Dining Room in the Country (1913)

Artist: Pierre Bonnard

Artwork description & Analysis: Bonnard was fascinated with different levels of perspective and with the tricks of perspective. In this painting there are no real space-defining objects - the chair and the washstand blend into the wall. The composition is a "corner composition," moving diagonally across the table, treated as a vertical plane, through the doorway to the woman to the landscape. Then there is a cross-diagonal movement through the chair to the washstand. This spatial movement is largely dependent on color; color is the primary director of this painting. Our eye is carried from the indoors to the outdoors via the red color. The door is the same color as the landscape, the table, and the crockery. Bonnard also contrasts the warm orange-red colors of the interior and the cool whites of the outdoors - a contrast accompanied by a heightened quality of the light.

Typically, Bonnard's figures appear less psychologically complex than the figures of Vuillard. As in this painting, the figure seems withdrawn - functioning as a mere prop - and is, in fact, psychologically recessive. That she seems to lack tangibility and psychological presence is borne out of the fact that although she is outdoors, the artist has placed her within a shadow and painted her in the same color as the interior wall. Bonnard is less interested in the specificity of the person, and instead, sets up a very complex spatial organization emphasizing that which is indoors and that which is outdoors, thus heightening Impressionist color and harnessing it to the service of linking figure to environment rather than recording a specific time of day. As is characteristic of the artist's work, the emphasis is on embedding the figure into the sensuous environment of both the depicted scene and the painted reality.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (c. 1797-1799)

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (c. 1797-1799)

Artist: Francisco Goya

Artwork description & Analysis: Goya is as famous for his prints as he is for his paintings, and is known as one of the great masters of the etching and aquatint techniques. The first of his four major print series was Los Caprichos, which consists of 80 numbered and titled plates. The artist's stated purpose in making the series was to illustrate "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual." Goya began working on the plates around 1796, after an undiagnosed illness left him deaf and drove him to retreat into a self-imposed isolation.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, plate 43 in the series, depicts a sleeping man (thought to be Goya himself), surrounded by a swarm of strange flying creatures. These are the "monsters" of the title, which invade the mind when reason is surrendered to imagination and dreams. Many of the animals Goya depicts hold symbolic meaning: the owls and bats represent ignorance and evil, while the watchful lynx at the artist's feet - a creature known for its ability to see in darkness - alerts us to the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction. The bat with the goat head may be a satanic reference, and allusions to witchcraft can be found throughout the series. However, as with many of Goya's prints, the intended meaning of the various symbols can be hard to deduce with certainty.

The Caprichos introduces the dark subject matter and mood that would continue to define Goya's work until the end of his life. These works, based on extensive drawings in pen and ink, were expressions of the artist's personal beliefs and ideas, created outside his official work for the court and influential patrons. These prints were profoundly influential to later Surrealists like Dali in their mingling of realism and dream symbolism.

Etching and aquatint - Private Collection

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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