My fascination with Odilon Redon began when I learned that he almost exclusively produced black and white works (charcoal drawings and lithographs) until the 1890s, when he started working in color pastels and oils. By 1900, he was no longer producing what he called “Noirs” (his monochrome drawings and prints) (meaning black, in French). I know that artists often change and develop — their style, their media — through their careers. But this always seemed to me to be such a pronounced difference. From this:
Quickly, Redon (1840-1916) was a Symbolist painter and printmaker, which means that he was more interested in basing his art on imagination than on what he actually saw in front of him; he chose imagination over realism. Redon’s “aim was to represent pictorially the ghosts of his own mind,”¹ not to depict a vase of flowers, for example, detailed petal by detailed petal. The symbols used by Symbolist artists wouldn’t necessarily make sense to the rest of us, nor would they be used universally. They were more personal and often mysterious.
Although the difference in his early versus his later work has always been striking for me, there was a continuous thread through his career. As the Museum of Modern Art website puts it, “The serene lyricism of these late colour works contrasts with the prevailing melancholy of the Noirs, but Redon’s fundamental aesthetic had not altered. The transformation of nature into dream-like images, suggesting indefinite states of mind and expressed in sumptuous textures, remained his central concern, and the exploratory freedom with which he investigated the suggestive potential of colour contributed considerably to Post-Impressionist art.”² Scroll through his works at the bottom of this wikipaintings page and you can see the profound change in his style, but also a unifying vein running through them all. Yes, “dream-like.”
I’m sure that what also drew me to him was his lovely, musical name, pronounced “Oh-dee-lohn Reh-dohn.” It’s probably my favorite artist name to say, ever. Odilon Redon. Lovely.
I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite Redons. Because I’m such a sucker for still-lifes:
And a Redon portrait. Is she dreaming, too?
For more on Redon:
MoMA’s biography is nice, thorough but brief.
2) Richard Hobbs, from Grove Art Online, on the MoMA website: http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=4840
“What a lovely, musical name!” from the movie High Society.