Nymphs
attributed to Odilon Redon

Artist biography

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Odilon Redon’s father was of French peasant stock and was a former colonel in New Orleans who had settled in the Bordeaux region. His mother was a Creole. Odilon Redon began his art training on the advice of Stanislas Gorin, a history painter, orientalist, and watercolourist, who instilled in him an admiration of Delacroix. During that same period, he formed a friendship with the botanist Armand Clavaud, who acquainted him with natural science, gave him a liking for flowers, and introduced him to wildlife. During the early 1860s, he was taught by Rodolphe Bresdin, and the first etching that he produced, in 1865 and entitled Le Gué, was inscribed ‘O. Redon élève de Bresdin’. In 1892, his lithograph entitled Reader was again evocative of the characteristic features of his teacher, even though the latter had been dead for seven years. From 1863 to 1865, Redon was taught by Gérome at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but did not subscribe to his academic teaching: ‘He advocated confining a form within an outline that I could see...’ On his own initiative, he discovered Romantic poetry, the works of Shakespeare, and Hindu spiritualism. During the course of his life, he acquired an education in the arts – notably in such subjects as mythology and literature – and joined the Symbolists in their admiration for Wagner. In 1871, he settled in Paris. He had a flat in the Avenue de Wagram, where he lived all of his life, and his son Ari after him. He used to invite his friends to this flat for a weekly meal – initially, the Symbolist poets, who were the first to acknowledge his talent, including Mallarmé, who was a lifelong friend and intellectual acquaintance. Later on, Henri Matisse used to visit him there. In 1875, he worked in Barbizon and Brittany. In 1878, during a trip to Holland, he discovered Rembrandt’s work, and the latter’s vision in terms of chiaroscuro would directly influence him, especially during his early work up to around 1890–1900. In 1879, at the age of almost 40, he produced his first lithographs. In 1889, Émile Bernard, who had already been among the first admirers of Cézanne and Van Gogh, came and paid him tribute, followed closely by the group of Bonnard, Vuillard, and Maurice Denis, who contributed to drawing Redon out of his isolation. Consequently, in 1891, he was acknowledged by them as the inspiration for their group of the Nabis, in place of Gauguin, who was henceforth absent. In 1905, he sold the family property in Peyrelebade, in the Medoc region. From that time onwards, he often went and stayed at the Abbaye de Fontfroide, the home of friends. At the outbreak of World War I, his son Ari was called up to serve with the balloonists.

Odilon Redon participated in a number of collective exhibitions. In 1884, he was a co-founding member of the Salon des Indépendents in Paris, where he continued to exhibit. In 1886, he participated in the eighth and last Salon des Impressionistes in Paris. In 1889, he participated in the first exhibition of the Association des Peintres-Graveurs (Association of Painters and Engravers), held at Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris. In 1899, he participated in a great exhibition in Paris aimed at ‘focusing on all the contemporary trends’. By mutual agreement, the artists of the new generation gathered around Redon. In 1900, he participated in the Exposition Universelle in Paris. In 1908, he was in Moscow, having been invited to the exhibition of the Golden Fleece group. In 1909–1910, in Odessa, Kiev, St Petersburg, and Riga, he participated in the Salon Izdebsky. In 1912, he participated in the Centenary Exhibition 1812–1912, held at the Institut Français in St Petersburg.

He has featured in a great many themed exhibitions posthumously, including in Paris in 1950, when two rooms were dedicated to him at the exhibition of the Symbolists held at the Musée de l’Orangerie; in 1979, at the Paris-Moscou exhibition, held at the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris, with two drawings and two wash drawings; in 2001, in Painting as Crime or the Curse of Modernity ( La peinture comme crime ou la part maudite de la modernité), held at the Musée du Louvre in Paris; in 2002, in ‘Men of Worth’: Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon and Their Contemporaries ( ‘Hommes De Valeur’: Henri Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon En Tijdgenoten), held at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo; in 2003, in Sleepwalkers. Odilon Redon and Rodolphe Bresdin ( Traumwandler. Odilon Redon und Rodolphe Bresdin), held at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg; and, also in 2003, in The Origins of Abstraction (1800–1914) ( Aux origines de l’abstraction (1800–1914)), held at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Redon showed sets of his works in solo exhibitions, beginning from his first (probably very low-key) exhibition in Bordeaux in 1861. Then, for many years, he worked without attracting the least attention to his works, and without even attempting to make a name for himself, until the exhibition of 1881 in Paris, in the premises of the weekly La Vie Moderne. He did not advertise this, but it was spotted by J.K. Huysmans. In 1882, he had another solo exhibition in Paris, in the offices of another publication. This time, his work was admired by a young critic by the name of Émile Hennequin, who then met him and published a long article: ‘... He has been able to conquer a desolate area on the border between reality and fantasy, which he has peopled with eerie phantoms, monsters, monads and composite beings formed from every human depravity, every animal baseness and from every terror of inert and noxious things...’ He also had exhibitions: in 1894, 1900, 1903, and 1906, at the Galerie Durand–Ruel in Paris; in 1898, at the Galerie Ambroise Vollard in Paris; in 1901, an exhibition of pastels at the Galerie Ambroise Vollard in Paris; in 1904, with a Redon Room of 62 works at the Salon d’Automne in Paris; in 1908, at the Galerie Druet in Paris; and, in 1913, in Ghent, Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, and Boston. Since his death, a great many retrospective exhibitions of series of his works have been held: in 1917, at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune in Paris; in 1919, at the Winterthur Museum in Switzerland; in 1920, at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris; in 1921, in Brussels and at the Museum of French Art in New York; in 1923, a retrospective at the Galerie Druet in Paris; in 1926, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; in 1931, with Toulouse-Lautrec in New York; in 1934, a retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris; in 1938, at the Wildenstein Gallery in London; in 1941, an exhibition of charcoal drawings at the Galerie de France in Paris; in 1951, an exhibition of pastels in New York, Minneapolis, Cleveland, and other cities; and, in 1996, an exhibition at the Museo Cantonnale d’Arte in Lugano.

During his years of training, and as a reaction against the teaching of Gérome, Redon took up charcoal and lead-pencil drawing, which enabled him to produce shading and chiaroscuro that eliminated the outlines. He executed several remarkable copies in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Holbein, and the Lion Hunt by Delacroix. Between 1870 and 1900, he painted several landscapes in the Medoc region (notably at his estate in Peyrelebade, then in Brittany, Holland, and Venice), for which he still used a conventional technique.

In his early work, Redon had drawn plants and trees with all their details. He had closely observed landscapes and animals, and all this work was aimed at acquiring a ‘personal vocabulary and syntax’, which would soon be suitable for ‘interpreting’ the strange world of his visions. It is said that Redon was a literary painter from early on in his life, at a time when he knew himself to be a painter of dreams. During the first half of his life, he used composition, lines, forms, and black-and-white contrasts, and during the second half of his life, he used the most luxuriant colours as plastic symbols only, preserving their mystery.

Redon had started with etching and a little engraving, including Fear in 1865, which was influenced directly by Bresdin. Following Fantin-Latour’s example, he soon turned to lithography, which he produced basically in black and white. He gave these works titles with a spiritual, mythical, literary, or introspective origin, and soon established the spiritual and poetic mood that would become the hallmark of all his work: titles such as Christ, Death, Pegasus Captive, Centaur, Brünnhilde, Parsifal, Wing, Light Profile, and Eyes Closed. Some of these works formed a series that he published in successive albums: the first, in 1879, was In Dreams; in 1882, To Edgar Allen Poe; in 1883, Origins; in 1885 or 1886, Tribute to Goya; in 1886, Night; in 1889, The Apocalypse of St John; and in 1891, Dream. The plates of The Apocalypse of St John contain comments from the actual text of the Apocalypse.

He also created illustrations to accompany the following literary texts: in 1887, The Juryman ( Le Juré) by Edmond Picard; in 1888, Debacles ( Les Débâcles) and In the Evenings ( Les Soirs) by Émile Verhaeren; in 1888, 1889, and 1896, the three albums of The Temptation of St Anthony ( La Tentation de Saint Antoine) by Gustave Flaubert; in 1890, Flowers of Evil ( Les Fleurs du mal) by Baudelaire and Damnation of the Artist ( La Damnation de l’artiste) by Iwan Gilkin; in 1891, Black Candlesticks ( Flambeaux noirs) by Émile Verhaeren; in 1892, Darkness ( Ténèbres) by Iwan Gilkin; and, in 1896, The Haunted House by Bulwer Lytton. He also decorated several works with frontispieces. According to several unconfirmed sources, he allegedly illustrated A Throw of the Dice Will Never Rule Out Chance ( Un coup de dé jamais n’abolira le hasard) by Stéphane Mallarmé.

Until 1905, and parallel to the creation of his engraved work, Redon produced a great many mystical charcoal drawings, which he called his ‘Noirs’. They are regarded as one of the oddest sections of his work, his visions being considered the most esoteric and closest to Whims ( Los Caprichos) and Badly Matched ( Los Disparates) by Goya. They are: Red Death Mask, Black Poppies, Worried about the Context, Orpheus’ Despair, Musing Angel, The Dice, Me, The First Awareness of Chaos, Hopelessness, and Smiling Spider.

From 1880 to his death, he produced a great number of portraits. Some were lithographs of his young Nabis friends, such as Vuillard, Bonnard, Sérusier, and Maurice Denis. Others were in oil and frequently in pastels, including: Madame Odilon Redon, Madame Sabouraud, Dr Sabouraud, Madame Fayet, Mesdemoiselles Fayet, The Marchioness de Gonet, Madame Arthur Fontaine, Mademoiselle Paule Gobillard, Mr Olivier Sainsere, Ary Leblond, Dr Weil, the critic Roger-Marx, the composer Ernest Chausson, and several of his own son, Ari Redon.

From 1890 to 1900, Redon occasionally used watercolours. The main pieces formed part of the donation to the Musée du Petit Palais (from 1910 to 1914). He achieved the maximum radiance in terms of colour with pastels, apparently using a direct technique – effectively by the play of multiple contrasts, whereby the value of each colour was enhanced by the colours nearby, and not using divided brushstrokes like Degas and the Impressionists. It is tempting, perhaps, to make a distinction between his pastels of flowers (of which there were notably a great many during the last period of his life) – which found favour, and still find favour, with the general public – and those pastels dedicated to subjects of a more personal, religious, mythological, or literary nature, such as: Joan of Arc, Stained Glass Window, Sphinx with Flowers, Ocean Monsters, Poisonous Flower, Passage of a Soul, The Golden Veil, Daydream, Ophelia, and Lady Macbeth, as well as his pastels of still-lifes of shells, with their incomparable variegated effects.

At different periods in his life, Redon had the opportunity to do decorative works. In 1901, he executed the mural paintings at the Château de Domecy, as well as others for the drawing room of Madame Ernest Chausson. He exhibited a screen at the Salon d’Automne in 1905 – the very same exhibition that marked the first appearance of the Fauves. In 1910–1911, he painted two panels entitled Day and Night in the library of the Abbey of Fontfroide. Some compositions have also served as models for tapestries for the Gobelins works in Paris.

After the paintings of his youth, during the periods of engraving and charcoal drawings, Redon abandoned oil painting until the moment when he discovered the expressive allure of colour for his personal use, as he had done with pastels. Still, his paintings remain less appreciated than his pastels. As in the case of the lithographs and pastels, the titles of the paintings allude to uncommon, religious, historical, mythological, and literary sources: The Holy Family, Virgin of the Dawn, The Flight into Egypt, St Sebastian, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Buddha, Stained Glass Window, The Goddess of Fire, Birth of Venus, The Chariot of Apollo, The Sun’s Chariot, Pegasus and the Hydra, Quadriga, Roger Freeing Angélique, Andromeda and the Monster, Cyclops, Orpheus, and Caliban’s Dream.

Odilon Redon was slightly younger than Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes, with whom his name is often linked. He belonged to the generation of Impressionists, being born the same year as Monet. Renoir and Sisley were born the following year. But although he was, like them, an admirer of Delacroix, and was one of the first to accept the art of Pissarro, he preferred to go his own way instead of joining in the Impressionist movement, which he considered a little ‘low-brow’. He was already referring to the role of the subconscious in art: ‘Nothing happens in art through willpower alone. Everything happens by submitting obediently to the appearance of the subconscious.’ During a period of naturalism and rationalism, it was not easy for him to find a receptive audience for the creations that had emerged from the depths of his imagination. The Symbolist writers, however, who took their inspiration from the French 19th-century poet Baudelaire, created the necessary climate, shortly before 1890, in which Redon became accepted as one of them. Although Redon, the painter of dreams, was initially accepted by the poets and painters of his era for the artistic priority he gave to meaning, and for his links with symbolics and the supernatural, he would be claimed, 10 years after his death, as being one of the precursors of Surrealism, who had dared to give free expression in his works to the sudden confusing and strange apparitions from deep down in his subconscious.

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Albi (Mus. Toulouse-Lautrec)
Amsterdam: Christ
Basel: Martyrdom of St Sebastian (c. 1910)
Bordeaux (MBA): Copy of the Lion Hunt, after Delacroix;Apparition (1883, charcoal);Angel and Demon (c. 1883, charcoal);Winged Man or Fallen Angel (1890–1895);Sphinx;Apollo’s Chariot (1909);Landscape;Trees (other works)
Bristol (City Mus. & AG): Cavalier aux deux barques (c. 1905–1908)
Chicago (AI): Ari Redon (1897, pastel)
Cleveland (MA): Orpheus (c. 1903);Portrait of Miss Violette Heymann (1909)
Detroit (Institute of Art): Dream of Butterflies;Conjuring Up Butterflies
Gifu (MFA): Winged Bust in Profile (Sphinx) (c. 1898, mixed media on paper);Balloon (1883, mixed medias on paper);Screen of Olivier Sainsere (1903, mixed media on canvas)
London (British Mus.): Blue Profile (pastel)
Melbourne (NG of Victoria): Pegasus and Bellerophon
Moscow (Pushkin MFA): Composition with Profile in a Black Triangle (1904, drawing in Indian ink);Drawing for the Cover of the Vesy Review (1904, charcoal);Composition (1904, brush with Indian ink);Composition. Young Girl with a Flower (1904, brush and Indian ink)
New York (Metropolitan MA): Pandora (c. 1910)
New York (MoMA): Vase of Flowers (1914, pastel);Etruscan Vase
Otterlo (Kröller-Müller Mus.): Escape (c. 1865, Indian ink wash);Eerie Monster (c. 1880–1885, charcoal);Woman and Snake (c. 1885–1890, charcoal);Woman and Flowers (c. 1890–1895, charcoal);Profile of Woman with Flowers (c. 1890–1895, charcoal);Cyclops (1898);Pegasus and the Dragon or Pegasus Triumphant (c. 1905–1907);Centaur and Snake (1908);Angelica and Roger (c. 1908–1910);Oannes (c. 1910);Dream;Profile of a Young Girl (other works)
Paris (Mus. d’Orsay): Décoration Domecy: Arbres, fond jaune (1901, charcoal/oil/distemper/traces of pastel on canvas);Décoration Domecy: La branche fleurie jaune (1901, charcoal/oil/distemper/traces of pastel on canvas);Portrait of Madame Odilon Redon (1882);Closed Eyes (1890);Sacred Heart (c. 1895);Portrait of the Baroness of Domecy (1900);Tribute to Gauguin (1904);Eve (1904);Vase of Flowers;Yellow Veil;Spider (drawings in graphite)
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): Reader (1892, lithograph);Arab Musician (1893);Birth of Venus (c. 1910, pastel);Winged Centaur Defeating a Monster (c. 1910–1914, drawing and watercolour);Bust of Woman with Outstretched Arms (c. 1910–1914, watercolour);Man and Woman in front of the Sun (c. 1910–1914, watercolour);Bouquet of Anemones (c. 1912, pastel);Apollo’s Chariot (approximately 50 paintings, pastels and watercolours)
Takasaki (Gunma Prefectural MMA): Pegasus and the Muse
Winterthur: Centaur;Woman Sleeping in the Mountains