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Odilon Redon

French Painter and Printmaker

Odilon Redon Photo
Movements and Styles: Symbolism, Les Nabis

Born: April 20, 1840 - Bordeaux, France

Died: July 6, 1916 - Paris, France

"I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted 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 appeased."

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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.

Key Ideas

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.
Odilon Redon Photo

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.

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