Odilon Redon (born Bertrand-Jean
Redon; April 20, 1840 – July 6, 1916) was a French symbolist painter,
printmaker, draughtsman and pastellist.
Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, to a prosperous family. The young
Bertrand-Jean Redon acquired the nickname "Odilon" from his mother, Odile. Redon
started drawing as a child; and, at the age of ten, he was awarded a drawing prize
at school. He began the formal study of drawing at fifteen; but, at his father's
insistence, he changed to architecture. Failure to pass the entrance exams at
Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts ended any plans for a career as an architect, although
he briefly studied painting there under Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1864. (His younger
brother Gaston Redon would become a noted architect.)
Back in his native Bordeaux, he took up sculpting, and Rodolphe Bresdin
instructed him in etching and lithography. His artistic career was interrupted in
1870 when he joined the army to serve in the Franco-Prussian War.
At the end of the war, he moved to Paris and resumed working almost exclusively
in charcoal and lithography. He called his visionary works, conceived in shades of
black, his noirs. It was not until 1878 that his work gained any recognition with
Guardian Spirit of the Waters; he published his first album of
lithographs, titled Dans le Rêve, in 1879. Still, Redon remained relatively unknown
until the appearance in 1884 of a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans titled À
rebours (Against Nature). The story featured a decadent aristocrat who collected
In the 1890s pastel and oils became his favored media; he produced no more noirs
after 1900. In 1899, he exhibited with the Nabis at Durand-Ruel's.
Redon had a keen interest in Hindu and Buddhist religion and culture. The figure
of the Buddha increasingly showed in his work. Influences of Japonism blended into
his art, such as the painting The Death of the Buddha around 1899, The
Buddha in 1906, Jacob and the Angel in 1905, and Vase with
Japanese warrior in 1905, amongst many others.
Baron Robert de Domecy (1867–1946) commissioned the artist in 1899 to create 17
decorative panels for the dining room of the Château de Domecy-sur-le-Vault near
Sermizelles in Burgundy. Redon had created large decorative works for private
residences in the past, but his compositions for the château de Domecy in 1900–1901
were his most radical compositions to that point and mark the transition from
ornamental to abstract painting. The landscape details do not show a specific place
or space. Only details of trees, twigs with leaves, and budding flowers in an
endless horizon can be seen. The colours used are mostly yellow, grey, brown and
light blue. The influence of the Japanese painting style found on folding screens
byōbu is discernible in his choice of colours and the rectangular proportions of
most of the up to 2.5 metres high panels. Fifteen of them are located today in the
Musée d'Orsay, acquisitioned in 1988.
Domecy also commissioned Redon to paint portraits of his wife and their daughter
Jeanne, two of which are in the collections of the Musée d'Orsay and the Getty
Museum in California. Most of the paintings remained in the Domecy family
collection until the 1960s.
In 1903 Redon was awarded the Legion of Honor. His popularity increased when a
catalogue of etchings and lithographs was published by André Mellerio in 1913; that
same year, he was given the largest single representation at the New York Armory
Redon died on July 6, 1916. In 1923 Mellerio published Odilon Redon: Peintre
Dessinateur et Graveur. An archive of Mellerio's papers is held by the Ryerson
& Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 2005 the Museum of Modern Art launched an exhibition entitled "Beyond The
Visible", a comprehensive overview of Redon's work showcasing more than 100
paintings, drawings, prints and books from The Ian Woodner Family Collection. The
exhibition ran from October 30, 2005 to January 23, 2006.
The Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland is showing a retrospective from
February to May 2014.
Redon's work represents an exploration of his internal feelings and psyche. He
himself wanted to "place the visible at the service of the invisible"; thus,
although his work seems filled with strange beings and grotesque dichotomies, his
aim was to represent pictorially the ghosts of his own mind. A
telling source of Redon's inspiration and the forces behind his works can be found
in his journal A Soi-même (To Myself). His process was explained
best by himself when he said:
"I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down
to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and
with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of
imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and
The mystery and the evocation of Redon's drawings are described by Huysmans in the
"Those were the pictures bearing the signature: Odilon Redon. They held, between
their gold-edged frames of unpolished pearwood, undreamed-of images: a
Merovingian-type head, resting upon a cup; a bearded man, reminiscent both of a
Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannon-ball with his
finger; a spider with a human face lodged in the centre of its body. Then there
were charcoal sketches which delved even deeper into the terrors of fever-ridden
dreams. Here, on an enormous die, a melancholy eyelid winked; over there stretched
dry and arid landscapes, calcinated plains, heaving and quaking ground, where
volcanos erupted into rebellious clouds, under foul and murky skies; sometimes the
subjects seemed to have been taken from the nightmarish dreams of science, and hark
back to prehistoric times; monstrous flora bloomed on the rocks; everywhere, in
among the erratic blocks and glacial mud, were figures whose simian
appearance—heavy jawbone, protruding brows, receding forehead, and flattened skull
top—recalled the ancestral head, the head of the first Quaternary Period, the head
of man when he was still fructivorous and without speech, the contemporary of the
mammoth, of the rhinoceros with septate nostrils, and of the giant bear. These
drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of
painting, they ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of
sickness and delirium."
Redon also describes his work as ambiguous and undefinable:
"My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does
music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined."