Mary is an art lover who has an emotional response to paintings, especially in person, and can sometimes be found tearing up in a museum
Odilon Redon: Master Among Symbolist Artists, 1840-1916
I'm embarrassed to say I've forgotten most of the details. Paris in my mid-20s. A smallish, lovely museum exhibiting the work of Odilon Redon. Was it the Orangerie? Jeu de Paume? I remember the friends I was with, I remember the chilly gray day, but most of all I remember a painting that almost knocked the breath out of me...
(Note: The painting above -- Flower Clouds, 1903 -- and others in this article are in the public domain)
Photos don't do this painting justice. In person it's luminous, almost glowing--beatific, really. For someone like me who responds intensely to color, the use of color alone was like a religious experience :) Happily, I repeated the experience with painting after painting that day in Paris, and later at a Redon exhibit back home in Chicago. Beatrice became just the first of many Odilon Redon paintings I would come to love. This rather under-the-radar figure is one of the best Symbolist artists, if not the very best, and his work is well worth exploring.
What Was the Symbolist Movement?
Symbolism was a late-19th-century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry (namely Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil) and other arts, including painting. Rejecting the rationalism and materialism that had come to dominate Western European culture, Symbolism stressed strong emotions as a source of aesthetic experience.
Symbolist poetry is better known than painting, through renowned poets like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, along with Baudelaire. As for symbolism in painting, arguably the two other biggest names besides Redon were fellow Frenchmen Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
"Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic movements which attempted to capture reality in its gritty particularity, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal."
Spirituality, dreams, and the imagination were favorite themes of Symbolist artists, including Redon.
For a deeper look at what symbolism for art was all about, check out this brief essay from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its accompanying visuals. Also see a defining document from this multi-arts movement: the Symbolist Manifesto by poet and essayist Jean Moreas.
"I am certain about what I will never do--but not about what my art will render."
Some of My Favorite Odilon Redon Paintings
"My originality consists in putting the logic of the visible to the service of the invisible."
Redon's Background, Influences and Impact
Redon's given name was Bertrand Jean Redon. His nickname, Odilon, came from his mother's name, Odile. (Cool tidbit: She was French Creole, and Redon was conceived in New Orleans, though actually born overseas in Bordeaux, France, in April of 1840. Extremely uncool tidbit: Redon's father met and married his mother, whose given name was Marie Guerin, while making his fortune in the 1830s New Orleans slave trade.)
For health reasons, reportedly, Redon was sent away as a child to be raised by his uncle -- let's hope a less evil figure than his dad, but who knows? -- in the Medoc region of France.
Later, from an adult perspective, he recalled being a "sad and weak child" who loved to watch clouds changing shape.
He showed an early aptitude for art, winning a drawing prize at the tender age of 11, but (reportedly at his father's urging) attempted to pursue an architecture degree. Luckily for us art lovers, he failed the architecture exams and turned to sculpting, etching and lithography. He worked heavily in charcoal before embracing pastel and oils in the 1890s.
Redon was open to influences from disciplines beyond the visual arts, including the work and knowledge of a botanist friend, Armand Clavaud, and the symbolist poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, who would also become a close friend.
In turn, this amazing artist influenced...
Henri Matisse, Andre Derain and the Fauves, who were inspired by his use of color. (The Fauves--French for "wild beasts"--were a small group of artists who shocked critics with a wild, vibrant style using short strokes of vivid color.)
The Surrealist movement that began in the 1920s and included Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, May Ray and Max Ernst. (In the 1870s and '80s, before he "found color," Redon's work often included haunting images of floating eyes and heads, which may have especially inspired the Surrealists.)
Symbolists like Redon also influenced the Art Nouveau movement, with its far-reaching influences into European and U.S. architecture and jewelry as well as fine art, circa 1890 to 1910, and Les Nabis -- an influential group of post-Impressionist artists, including Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, who worked and exhibited together between 1888 and 1900. (Redon himself exhibited with Les Nabis at least once, in 1899.) Austrian painter Gustav Klimt of The Kiss fame clearly seems to have been influenced by Redon and his peers, along with Art Nouveau and Expressionist currents.
Besides Redon, key Symbolist painters were Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Some critics and art lovers argue that Paul Gauguin and even Vincent Van Gogh produced Symbolist paintings -- but that's up for debate. (The merging of Post Impressionism and Symbolism in Gauguin's work is concisely, and convincingly, explained here.)
Symbolism for art was an international phenomenon, with painters from Belgium (Fernand Khnopff, Jean Delville) and Britain (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Aubrey Beardsley) showing influences from the movement.
For a brief discussion of symbolism in painting, with visual examples beyond Redon, check out this Met essay.
Odilon Redon Flowers - Singularly Stunning
Odilon Redon flowers make a great point of entry for anyone interested in exploring this artist's work. The familiarity of a floral still life gives way to Redon's unorthodox, often stunning color combinations. His rich imagination shows in the diverse array of blooms and leaves combined within a painting and the patterns and colors used for vases. The occasional presence of a butterfly hints at the natural, outdoor world that fascinated Redon. Focusing mainly on black and white, often edgy and even surreal works until his 50s, Redon lost no time in becoming an unparalleled colorist. His floral paintings are among the very best examples of that. The stunning Bouquet of Flowers (c 1900-1905), above, features a vase that ceramic artist Marie Botkin -- whose portrait Redon painted in 1900 -- made and gave to Redon that same year and that would go in to appear in several of his flower paintings. Perhaps it was a beautiful barter arrangement with Botkin?
I sometimes wonder if my intense love for Beatrice, up top, is because its colors -- while vibrant -- seem more delicate and tentative than the confident, no-holds-barred world of Odilon Redon flowers that would emerge in a slightly later period. It's like a gorgeous hint of the (arguably even more gorgeous) imaginary universe the artist would next create in oils and pastel.
I have in my mind’s eye as one of the good things that I have painted, this vase of flowers, which has remained a vision for me... I do not know of anything that has given me more pleasure than such an appreciation of simple flowers in their vase breathing air.
The Odilon Redon Cyclops
The date this was painted is something of a mystery -- it's dated between 1898 and 1914, a rather wide range. It depicts the ill-fated mythical love of Polyphemus for Galatea. Painted with oils on cardboard, then mounted on wood, the Odilon Redon Cyclops painting resides at the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. From the Kroller-Muller's description of this painting: "In this painting, the Cyclops Polyphemus spies on the sleeping Nereid Galathea from behind a tall mountain. The one-eyed giant’s love remains unrequited, as Galathea prefers the river god Acis." As disturbing as the one-eyed creature painted here might be, the painting's vibrant color palette and crowded, complex details from the natural world in the foreground -- almost reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, from four centuries prior -- create a softer, less threatening atmosphere than the many eye-focused works from Redon's earlier noir period, discussed below. In Redon's rendering, unlike in other works representing this epic Greek mythological figure -- giant-sized son of Thoosa and Poseidon -- the cyclops Polythemus is less a violent stalker bent on revenge and destruction, more of a shy and mournful observer of the vulnerable object of his affection.
Odilon Redon - Smiling Spider
While the artist would evolve into a master of color, this rather creepy 1887 lithograph is one of Redon's many works in black: his noirs collection. Placing the spider in a mundane environment -- a tiled kitchen floor -- but giving it a toothy, almost leering human grin foreshadows the surrealism movement that would begin in earnest in the 1920s.
His botanist friend Clavaud encouraged Redon's keen interest in the natural sciences, and the spider's extra set of arms could have been inspired by the artist's visits to the Museum of Natural History in Paris and its exhibits on biological abnormality.
The stories of Edgar Allen Poe were also an inspiration for this period of Redon's career, wrote Katie Pfohl in 2016 for the New Orleans Museum of Art: "Redon, like many of the other French artists and writers connected with the Symbolist movement, was intrigued and inspired by the macabre imagery in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, as well as his connection to the American South." The artist dedicated a series of lithographs to Poe in 1882 -- not illustrations, explained Brittanica, but "poems in visual terms, themselves evoking the poet’s world of private torment."
Redon's noirs, wrote Allesandra Nardi in a 2016 "Art Stories" blog post for the Getty Museum -- which featured several Redon drawings in its exhibition "Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints -- often represented "hybrid creatures, oscillating between human beings, animals and plants, with melancholy, grotesque faces." While the creepy mouth is most prominent in the Odilon Redon spider, giant and disembodied eyes were the focal point of drawings like Eye-Balloon (1878); The Cube (1880); The Misshapen Polyp Floated on the Shores, a Sort of Smiling and Hideous Cyclops (1883); and An Eye Floating in the Sky Above a Mountain (1888). The ocular fascination went beyond Redon's noirs, of course: In its description of his colorful Cyclops painting, the museum housing that work points out that "The unnaturally large eye is the most conspicuous part of the painting. In Redon’s work, the eye is often an all controlling, independent creature, a symbol of the human soul and of the mysterious, unknown inner world."
Given how brilliantly and passionately he would come to employ color, it's surprising that much of his work before the 1890s was rendered in his beloved shades of black and white.
"It is precisely from the regret left by the imperfect work that the next one can be born."
The Life and Art of Odilon Redon -- With Christian Conrad
What do you think of Redon?
Odilon Redon Prints and Books
At Art.com you'll find a vast catalog of Odilon Redon prints to customize by materials, size, shape and budget.
Alas, there aren't as many art-book speciality shops as in the olden days. But Amazon actually has a decent selection, representing works ranging from the creepy, Poe-influenced style of Redon's earlier drawings to his jewel-like floral beauties. To immerse yourself in Redon's stunning symbolism, try to get ahold of the Art Institute of Chicago's gorgeous catalog from its 1994 exhibit, Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, compiled by Douglas W. Druick. (As of September 2021, Abe Books has a few used copies on offer, in good condition.) Also difficult but by no means impossible to procure is To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists -- a compilation of excerpts from over six decades of Redon's journals and notes.
"While I recognize the necessity for a basis of observed reality...true art lies in a reality that is felt."
Symbolist Paintings from Across Europe
Below, some examples of symbolism in painting besides Redon's work.
- Odilon Redon: How Louisiana ancestry influenced his Symbolist art - New Orleans Museum of Art
From the New Orleans Museum of Art, a brief discussion of Redon's New Orleans roots and their influence on his work
- REDON RECONSIDERED - The Washington Post
Wahington Post review of the Art Institute of Chicago's 1994 Redon retrospective exhibit, with info on Redon's life and impact on other artists and artistic movements
- ARTIST REDON'S LIFE PORTRAIT OF AN OUTSIDER - Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune review of the Art Institute's retrospective, also with comments on the artist's life and influences
- MOMA Redon Exhibit
New York's Museum of Modern Art showcased Redon's work in "Beyond the Visible," October 2005 to November 2006, and created a matching online gallery. It groups works into 3 themes--Monsters, Tales, and Metamorphosis--and presents them beautifully.
- Odilon Redon at The Met | The Met Store Magazine
This 2021 article honored the artist on what would be his 181st birthday by paying tribute to his flower paintings and pastels that are part of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.
- Redon's Wikipedia entry
Biographical details & analysis of his work
- Sampling of paintings
40+ Odilon Redon paintings, nicely presented
- Odilon Redon's Noir World Of Darkness
An examination of the artist's "noir" drawings, including the famous Odilon Redon Smiling Spider
- Fontfroide Abbey
This lucky blogger visited Fontfroide Abbey during an artist's residency and shares, in her writeup, photos of the two large-scale works Redon produced for its library between 1910 and 1912. Stunning!
Thanks for letting me share one of my most beloved artists with you. Are you a fan as well? And do your favorite Odilon Redon paintings match up with the ones I've included in this article? If not, which are your favorites? Are you just hearing about this genius? Or there other symbolist painters you enjoy? Any thoughts much appreciated, and please don't hesitate to recommend painters you think I would also love!
© 2009 Mary
Mary (author) from Chicago area on June 13, 2012:
@MarjorieWard: this comment made me so happy -- thanks!
MarjorieWard on June 13, 2012:
I had never heard of him until a few months ago when I was assigned a paper in Art History... Wow! I can't believe he's not more well-known. I agree his work is literally breathtaking. Will forever be my favorite artist.
Mary (author) from Chicago area on February 13, 2011:
@mariatjader: no, it was much smaller than d'Orsay -- although I agree it is a wonderful place! this was a temporary exhibit somewhere. thank you so so much for the blessing!!
mariatjader on February 13, 2011:
I think you may have been at the MusÃ©e d'Orsay, they have a fantastic Redon collection there. Your lens brought back some lovely memories, for me as well the first encounter with these works took place in similar circumstances..
Great lens about a more obscure artist & squid angel blessed*
anonymous on September 07, 2010:
I particularly love Redons black and white drawings
I personally think he was a surrealist whom was way ahead of the curb
hlkljgk from Western Mass on October 28, 2009:
thank you for introducing me to a new artist.
oztoo lm on September 27, 2009:
I also had not heard of this artist but I really like his work. Great Lens
clouda9 lm on September 26, 2009:
I love learning new things - today I accomplished that by visiting your lens. Beautiful art!
myraggededge on September 25, 2009:
Great lens and a nice intro to the artist's work. Thank you!
Leanne Chesser on September 22, 2009:
This is the first time I've heard of this artist . . . but great stuff!
Lynne Schroeder from Blue Mountains Australia on September 22, 2009:
I hadn't heard of this painter before. Beautiful! Thankyou
Cheryl Kohan from England on September 22, 2009:
Chariot of Apollo and Pandora are my faves. I am an art lover, too. But I was unfamiliar with Odilon Redon until now. Thanks for bringing this wonderful artist to my attention!
lakern26 lm on September 22, 2009:
Wonderful lens! I really enjoyed learning about this painter. Thanks so much for the introduction! 5*
kimmanleyort on September 22, 2009:
Really interesting! I had not heard of him but love this work. The still life's especially.
Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on September 21, 2009:
anonymous on September 21, 2009:
Very interesting art!
Treasures By Brenda from Canada on September 21, 2009:
Beautifully done & blessed.
bdkz on September 21, 2009:
Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on September 21, 2009:
Great work. The paintings are lovely. 5 stars.
Heather Burns from Wexford, Ireland on September 21, 2009:
Love your Gibran quote too! lensrolled, faved...
Heather Burns from Wexford, Ireland on September 21, 2009:
Wonderful and beautiful! 5*****
Paula Atwell from Cleveland, OH on September 21, 2009:
Gorgeous lens. Blessed by an angel. : )
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on September 21, 2009:
Excellent Lens! Thanks for introducing me to Odilon Redon.
anonymous on September 21, 2009:
Great lens! I have never heard of Redon before, his art is gorgeous! I love his use of color :)