Odilon Redon - Biography and Legacy
French Painter and Printmaker
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 Ecole 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.