French Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Odilon Redon
Redon is one of the most important and original of all the Symbolist artists. His visionary works concern the world of dreams, fantasy, and the imagination. He first became famous for his noirs series, monochromatic compositions that exploit the expressive and suggestive powers of the color black. His lithographs, which often reworked earlier drawings, became a means to broaden his audience, as well as to explore in series specific themes or literary texts - he was particularly drawn to the Romantic and Symbolist works of Poe, Flaubert, and Mallarmé. Later, Redon began to slowly adopt a more colorful palette, so that his pastels and oil paintings are riotous with color, consisting largely of portraits and floral still lifes. His encounter with the Nabis introduced him to a more decorative aesthetic, and his late works incorporate Japonism as well as an attention to flat, abstract patterns, and decorative ensembles. Redon would have an enormous impact on the art of his contemporaries, such as Paul Gauguin, as well as later modern artists like Marcel Duchamp. His lithographs and noirs in particular were admired by the Symbolist writers of the day but also by later Surrealists for their often bizarre and fantastical subjects, many of which combine scientific observation and visionary imagination.
- Redon worked almost exclusively in black and white during the first half of his career. In both charcoal drawings and lithographic prints, the artist relied on the expressive and suggestive possibilities of black in his monochromatic compositions called noirs. These are some of his most famous works, and typify Symbolism in their mysterious subjects and bizarre, dreamlike inventions.
- Redon's use of non-naturalistic color in his late pastels and oil paintings prefigure the later development of Expressionism and abstraction. In portraits, still lifes, and decorative ensembles, Redon explored the expressive and suggestive powers of color. Many of these works include passages that are purely nonobjective, often seen in the ethereal chromatic backgrounds that he coupled with figurative subjects.
- One of the main themes in Redon's oeuvre is the decapitated or disembodied head. Often shown free-floating, and sometimes reduced to a mere eyeball, the severed head encapsulates the Symbolist desire to free oneself from the shackles of the ordinary, mundane world, and achieve a higher state of consciousness through the exploration of dreams and subjective vision.
- When asked in an interview about his favorite artistic subjects, Redon replied, "My monsters. I believe that it is there that I have given my most personal note." While Redon's depictions of "monsters" - often hybrid human-plant or human-animal creatures - were the product of his vivid imagination, they also owed a great deal to his knowledge of the natural sciences, and especially new theories of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin, which for the first time established a connection between humans and our animal ancestors.
Progression of Art
Guardian Spirit of the Waters
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 20th-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 - The Art Institute of Chicago
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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity
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
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 École 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
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, Paris
Baronne de Domecy
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
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 lifes 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 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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
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
Biography of Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon was born Bertrand Jean Redon to a prosperous family in Bordeaux. His nickname was a derivation of his mother's first name, Odile, who was a French Creole woman from Louisiana. Because of his ill health, perhaps due to epilepsy, Redon was entrusted to his uncle's care and grew up in Peyrelebade in the Medoc region of France on the family's winemaking estate. His childhood was solitary, and he described days spent "watching the clouds pass, following with infinite pleasure the magical brightness of their fleeting variations." However, Redon also characterized himself as a "sad and weak child," who "sought out the shadows." He recalled, "I remember taking a deep and unusual joy in hiding under the big curtains and in the dark corners of the house." This note of melancholy and pessimism would find its expression in his mature art, particularly in his noirs and mysterious Symbolist works.
Eventually Redon returned to his family in Bordeaux, where he attended school for the first time at the age of 11. After he won a prize for drawing, his parents arranged for him to study with Stanislas Gorin in 1855. Gorin had a profound influence on the budding artist, as Redon recalled, "His first words...were to advise me that I was myself, and that I should never make a single mark with a pencil unless my feeling and my reason were in it." An expert watercolorist, Gorin introduced Redon to such Romantic artists as Eugène Delacroix and Francisco Goya, whose works Redon was encouraged to copy. He also introduced the young artist to art by their contemporaries, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Moreau.
Early Training and Work
Redon's father pressured him to study architecture instead of art, but in 1857 Redon failed the entrance exams for architectural studies at the École des Beaux-Arts. In Paris Redon met and began a lifelong and highly influential friendship with the botanist Armand Clavaud who introduced him to the scientific theories of Charles Darwin, the literary works of Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Edgar Allan Poe, and the sacred texts of Hinduism and Buddhism. Redon continued painting watercolors in the style of Gorin, and in 1862 created his first major work, Roland à Roncevaux, which portrayed the Romantic hero of the Crusades in a style reminiscent of Delacroix. In 1864 Redon entered the atelier of the famous academic painter, Jean-Leon Gerome, an educational experience that Redon described as "tortured," due to Gerome's overbearing emphasis on mimetic representation.
In 1865, seeking a more supportive environment, Redon returned happily to his family home in Bordeaux and took up sculpture. It was at this time that Redon made the acquaintance of Rodolphe Bresdin, an impoverished but thoroughly original and eccentric artist, whose combination of highly detailed depictions of the natural world and visionary subjects would have a profound influence on the young artist. Indeed, Bresdin became a mentor to Redon, teaching him how to make etchings and engravings, and encouraging him to tap into the world of spirit and mystery to which Redon was already drawn.
The 1870s were a decade of profound change in Redon's life and artistic practice. In 1870 he was drafted into the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with France's humiliating defeat and the Commune one year later. The experience interrupted his life and work as an artist, compounding his natural tendencies toward melancholy. Yet at the same time, the tumultuous events of 1870-71 led to an artistic breakthrough. Back in Paris, he began working on what he called his noirs: monochromatic charcoal drawings that exploit the medium's inherently rich blackness. The extraordinary range of tone, texture, and shading that Redon achieved in these works is remarkable, rivaled only by Georges Seurat's Conte crayon drawings of the same period. Black became the ideal medium for Redon to express his imagination. As Redon said, "Black should be respected. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and does not awaken sensuality. It is the agent of the spirit much more than the splendid color of the palette or the prism."
In 1872 Redon met Henri Fantin-Latour from whom he learned the transfer method of lithography. When Redon's father died penniless in 1874, Redon turned to lithography as a way to make a living, as these prints could be produced and sold in relatively large quantities, thereby allowing him to market his works to a broader public. As he described, "I had earlier tried, in vain, to show in the official Salons with the numerous drawings I had already completed...I therefore made my first lithographs (in 1878) to multiply my drawings."
In 1876 he met the poet and art critic, Stéphane Mallarmé, and participated in regular gatherings at Mallarmé's home, where he met many writers and artists in his Symbolist circle. Redon began to receive critical attention in the late 1870s, with the appearance of his Guardian Spirit of the Waters (1878). In 1879 he produced his first lithographic series, In the Dream.
In 1880 he married Camille Falte, a Creole woman like his mother, and said that "I believe the yes that I uttered on the day of our union was the expression of the most complete and unadulterated certainty I ever experienced. A certainty more complete even than my vocation." However, the happiness of his marriage was overshadowed by the loss of the couple's firstborn child, a son, who died at six months old. This tragedy plunged Redon into a profound depression that he poetically described as a "melancholy faintness."
During this period Redon worked primarily on lithographs, creating several portfolios conceived as accompaniments to literary works. For instance, To Edgar Poe appeared in 1882 (Poe's poems had been translated into French a decade earlier by Mallarmé), and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, inspired by Flaubert's novel, in 1896. At Mallarmé's Salons, Redon met the critic and novelist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, who became a great admirer of the artist's. Huysmans's Decadent novel, Against Nature (1884) tells the story of the dandy Des Esseintes, who hides away from society in his mansion on the outskirts of Paris. Among his art collection are a number of works by Redon, including charcoal drawings. The novel helped make Redon famous. Around the same time, Redon befriended Paul Gauguin, who clearly understood his friend's visionary art: "I do not see why it is said that Odilon Redon paints monsters. They are imaginary beings. He is a dreamer, an imaginative spirit."
Redon exhibited with the Impressionists in their last group exhibition in 1886. His works signaled the shifting tides of modern art, from Impressionism to Symbolism, and from a focus on observing the fleeting effects of nature toward a concern for an emphasis on subjectivity and inner vision.
In the 1890s Redon's work underwent a radical change, as he began working predominantly in pastels, at last employing color after years of only black. Some scholars have attributed the change to a religious awakening, as evidenced by the artist's growing interest in subjects taken from Buddhism or Christianity, but many of his black-and-white lithographs were also devoted to religious subject matter. No matter the medium, Redon's primary concern was with the subjective experience of spirituality, rather than illustrating liturgical texts. Color simply became another means by which he could explore realms beyond the visible, using it for expressive rather than mimetic purposes. Other scholars have attributed Redon's embrace of color to his personal happiness, as his second son, Ari, was born in 1889. Writing in 1913, the artist reflected upon his transition to color, saying, "If the art of an artist is the song of his life, a solemn or sad melody, I must have sounded the key-note of gaiety in color."
In the 1890s Redon's continuing friendship with Gauguin led to his encounter with the young artists of the Nabis. Maurice Denis saw in Redon an example of an established artist who likewise used the formal tools of his art to express personal feeling, or what he called "the state of the artist's soul." Redon also learned from the younger painters, and began to adopt their Japonisme, expressive use of color, and emphasis on decoration. Many of the Nabis, including Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, created large-scale decorative projects such as folding screens and murals, and Redon would do so as well toward the end of his career, most notably in his wall paintings for the chateau of Baron Robert de Domecy and Fontfroide Abbey.
After 1900, Redon began to focus on portraits, many of them done on commission, as well as mythological and literary subjects, floral still lifes, and the aforementioned decorative work. Everything he made from here on was utterly awash with brilliant color which displayed what the twentieth century Surrealist artist, Andre Masson, was to call "lyrical chromatics."
Redon's fame grew toward the end of his life; in 1903 the French government bestowed upon him the Legion of Honor. In 1913, the publisher Andre Mellerio issued a catalogue raisonne of his prints; that same year he was included in the famous Armory Show in New York, exhibiting more works than any other artist in the exhibition. Redon died in 1916, his death perhaps hastened by his anxiety and dread over his son, who was serving as a soldier on the front lines in World War I.
The Legacy of Odilon Redon
Redon's far-reaching influence falls into two categories corresponding to the two main threads in his oeuvre: his extraordinarily vivid and colorful late paintings and pastels, and his earlier noirs. For the Nabis, it was Redon's free and expressive use of color that would have the most impact. Maurice Denis credited Redon with advancing the spiritual evolution of his own art, while Pierre Bonnard said of Redon, "All of our generation fell under his charm and received his advice." Later, Henri Matisse acknowledged the influence of Redon's pastels on his own colorful Fauvist palette.
But the impact of Redon's noirs on modern art was perhaps even more profound, for in them we find his greatest originality and inventiveness. The Surrealists were particularly taken with the dreamlike quality of those charcoals and lithographs, and André Breton, their de-facto leader, was a particularly great admirer. A key part of Redon's influence was the suggestiveness of his art - rather than describing things for us, the viewer participates actively in interpreting the work. The inventor of the readymade, Marcel Duchamp, noted, "If I am to tell what my own departure has been, I should say that it was the art of Odilon Redon." Redon's influence even extends beyond the visual arts, including the work of the composer Toru Takemitsu.