Into the Light: Odilon Redon’s unique eye, 1 – to 1894

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), l’Araignée qui pleure (The Crying Spider) (1881), charcoal, 49.5 x 37.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This year has seen major international celebrations of the lives and work of Hieronymus Bosch, William Merritt Chase, and Thomas Eakins. I have barely seen mention, though, of another important anniversary, of the death of Odilon Redon (1840–1916). Like William Blake, Redon was far ahead of his time, and even today his remarkable art is little-appreciated.

He was born as Bertrand-Jean Redon, but acquired the nickname of Odilon from his mother’s name, Marie-Odile. As an infant, he remained in the Medoc owing to his ‘delicate’ health, and did not live in the city of his birth, Bordeaux, until 1851. He started to receive drawing lessons in 1855, and in 1859 prepared himself to try to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to study architecture. His bid was unsuccessful, though, so in 1863 he moved to Paris to work in the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme. Sadly, that did not work out either, so he returned to Bordeaux, where he learned etching and lithography under Rodolphe Bresdin.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he served as a private soldier in the Loire. Once the Paris Commune had been suppressed in 1871, he returned to the capital, where he was welcomed into literary and artistic circles. During this early stage in his career, most of his works were etchings and prints, but he also drew in charcoal, and painted a little. In 1875 he visited Barbizon and Fontainebleau, and in 1878 travelled to Belgium and the Netherlands.

His first volume of lithographs was published in 1879 under the title Dans le rêve (In the Dream), and his charcoal drawings and prints were exhibited in 1881. At about this time he started to paint more seriously, making oil sketches en plein air in Brittany, in Impressionist style.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Village by the Sea in Brittany (c 1880), oil on cardboard on hardboard, 25.1 x 32.4 cm, The National Gallery of Art (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon), Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

Village by the Sea in Brittany (c 1880) is one of the earliest of his oil sketches to survive.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Breton Harbour (1875-1884), oil on paper, 25 x 31.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

In his Breton Harbour (1875-1884), his brushwork has become more apparent.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Breton Port (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Breton Port is an undated view from this period.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Rocks on the Beach (c 1883), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 26 x 36.2 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Rocks on the Beach (c 1883) shows his developing skills and style.

In 1884, he was one of the founding members of the Salon des Artistes Indépendants, which elected him their President. In 1886, he exhibited at the Salon of the XX in Brussels, and in the last Impressionist Exhibition in Paris.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Breton Village (c 1890), oil on canvas, 22.5 x 32.5 cm, The National Gallery of Art (Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon), Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

Breton Village (c 1890) has moved away from early Impressionism, with its more gestural treatment of the flowers and leaves in the foreground.

Although thoroughly competent, his paintings at this time were far more traditional than his charcoal drawings and prints.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), l’Araignée qui pleure (The Crying Spider) (1881), charcoal, 49.5 x 37.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

l’Araignée qui pleure (The Crying Spider) (1881) is an extraordinarily inventive chimera of spider (with an extra pair of legs) and the head of a man.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Caliban (1881), charcoal, 49 x 36 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Caliban (1881), another charcoal drawing, shows the subhuman witch’s son who plays a leading role in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Chimera (1883), charcoal and black chalk on paper, 50.4 x 34 cm, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Chimera (1883), drawn using charcoal and black chalk, shows one of his early recurrent themes, of eyes looking out, and spiral tails of imaginary creatures.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Les Yeux Clos (Eyes Closed) (1890), oil on canvas, 44 x 36 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, his strange images migrated from his drawings and prints to his canvas, in paintings such as Les Yeux Clos (Eyes Closed) (1890). Redon then abandoned his drawing, and concentrated more on painting and prints. In 1890, he exhibited again in the Salon of the XX in Brussels. Durand-Ruel became his agent, and in 1894 organised his first solo exhibition, which also travelled to the Netherlands and Belgium.



Vialla J (2001) Odilon Redon, Sa vie, Son Œuvre (1840-1916), ACR Edition, PocheCouleur (in French). ISBN 978 2 8677 0150 4.