If there’s one European artist who just had to be a Symbolist, surely it was Odilon Redon (1840–1916), many of whose drawings, prints and paintings are among the finest examples of the movement. In today’s and tomorrow’s articles about his career and work, I show a small selection which should leave you in no doubt, even if, like me, you’re still not quite sure how to define Symbolism.
He was born in 1840 as Bertrand-Jean Redon, but acquired the nickname of Odilon from his mother’s name, Marie-Odile. As an infant, he remained in the Médoc, the wine-growing region to the north of Bordeaux, owing to his ‘delicate’ health, and didn’t 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, so in 1863 he moved to Paris to work in the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme, the staunch realist. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, that didn’t work out either, so he returned to Bordeaux, where he learned etching and lithography under Rodolphe Bresdin.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, 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 early paintings were far more traditional than his charcoal drawings and prints. They consisted largely of plein air landscapes painted in a gentle Impressionist style, as in this Breton Village from about 1890.
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.
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.
Caliban (1881), another charcoal drawing, shows the subhuman witch’s son who plays a leading role in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
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.
Eventually, these strange images migrated from his drawings and prints onto 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.
Oedipus and the Sphinx had been one of the major stories depicted in paint during the nineteenth century, with significant paintings by JAD Ingres, Gustave Moreau and others. Redon took the Sphinx into a mediaeval court in this pastel painting of Mystical Knight from 1894, which must remain one of its most original treatments. Oedipus is carrying a disembodied head in his right arm as he out-stares the Sphinx.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman (The White Flower Bouquet) (c 1895) is a startling depiction of a popular story from the gospel of John, chapter 4, verses 4-26, in which Christ arrived at a well in Samaria, tired and thirsty after his journey. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus asked her to give him a drink. That surprised her, as at that time most Jews would not have engaged with a Samaritan like her. They then became involved in conversation, in which Jesus preached to her, and revealed himself as the Messiah.
Redon offers us a unique interpretation, in which Christ appears to be holding a bouquet of white flowers for the woman. There are other adornments, such as the elaborate floral object between the two, and a bright blue object high above Christ’s head. Both the figures have their eyes closed.
Redon also painted some relatively conventional portraits, such as this of Baronne Robert de Domecy (1900), in oils. Her husband was a faithful patron to Redon.
For some of these, he also made more radical and imaginative pastel paintings, here Baronne de Domecy (c 1900), with its huge imaginary flowers. He was the lifelong friend of Armand Clavaud, an eminent botanist of the day, who must have found Redon’s paintings a revelation.
Redon painted many of the most popular stories from the classics, too. This Pegasus, often referred to as the ‘White Pegasus’, from 1900, is a superb depiction of the winged horse, but out of any narrative context.