Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
An active figure in French painting of the 19th century, the Bordeaux artist and printmaker Bertrand-Jean Redon, better known as Odilon Redon, was a highly respected member of the Symbolism movement. Born in Bordeaux, he studied Camillle Corot and Eugene Delacroix but his artistic career was shaped through his friendships with Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-1885) and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Bresdin taught Redon etching and Fantin-Latour introduced him to lithography. Between 1879 and 1899 Redon created 166 lithographs and 17 groups of book illustrations, mostly in black and white. His later works, from the late 1890s are more colourful and he experimented in mixed media and easel paintings. Redon's non-naturalistic colours inspired the Fauvists, and his use of unreal imagery and his method of arranging objects in an unreal manner anticipates Surrealism. His most reproduced works include The Cyclops (1898-1900, Kroller-Muller, Otterlo), and The Smiling Spider (1881, Louvre, Paris).
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Early Life and Work
Redon was born in the same year as Claude Monet, to a wealthy family. He grew up on the family estate in Peyrelebade, amid the desolation of a flat, barren and haunting landscape. It provided a constant supply of uncomfortable visual imagery throughout his life. At the insistence of his father, he started studying architecture. Suffering a mental breakdown, he returned to Bordeaux in about 1862. Back home, he took up sculpture and met the artist Rodolphe Bresdin. Bresdin was an eccentric French engraver and lithographer who was known for his highly detailed and technically precise prints. His words were highly imaginative, generally fantastical or macabre. Bresdin taught Redon etching, and enabled him during the 1860s to produce a series of engravings of his childhood landscapes, in which he incorporated motifs used by Camille Corot (17961875) and Eugene Delacroix (1798 1863). Redon's artistic development was temporarily put on hold in 1870 when he went to fight in the Franco-Prussian war.
Paris and Lithography
At the end of the war, Redon discovered the more immediate technique of charcoal. In 1878 he met Fantin-Latour, who taught him lithography (although he was primarily a traditional painter of flowers and group portraits). Over the next decade Redon evolved his own personal form of Symbolism, which he translated into lithographs after 1879. His new works encompassed endless shades of black. Most of the lithographs were given deliberately ambiguous names, invented by the artist himself. In his autobiography, Redon stated his lithographs spoke about the two central themes of his art: the relationship between Man and Nature, and 'suggestive' art. His dramatic drawings of people even bordered on the caricature. He populated his work with monsters, spiders and Cyclops. Unclassifiable, his creatures had a sort of emotional depth that was not obtainable from those in the natural world. His prints inspired those in particular who were associated with Symbolism.
Despite his artistic innovations, Redon remained rooted in nature, but used memory, imagination and dreams as a filter. In 1894 he wrote: "There is a certain style of drawing that the imagination has liberated from the embarrassing concern of real details in order that it might freely serve only as the representation of conceived things. I have made several fantasies using the stem of a flower or the human face or with elements derived from skeletons which, I believe, are designed, constructed and built as it was necessary they should be. They are like that because they have a structure." Until 1895 Redon's life had not been happy. He was depressive by nature, and the death of his first son, along with his slow rise to fame, did little to help. However, growing recognition of his works and the birth of another son, brought light into his life. It also led him to experiment with colour in painting, as in Pegasus Triumphant (1905, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo).
From 1900 Redon gave priority to traditional easel painting, spending time on portrait art, as well as still life and some religious art. He pushed his colour to subliminal levels, and not always in a representational format. He showed equal enthusiasm for oils and pastels, and his work was much admired by the Fauves - in particular Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Paintings include Flowers (1903, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen); The Buddha (1905, Musee d'Orsay, Paris); Red Boat with Blue Sail (1906-7, private collection); Portrait of Violette Heymann (1910, Cleveland Museum of Art) and The Cyclops (c.1914, Museum Kroller-Mueller, Otterlo). His use of strange titles, and technique of creating unreal juxtapositions, anticipated the Surrealist style. Connected with the avant-garde, he exhibited at one of the final Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris in 1886 and the 1904 Salon d'Automne. He received commissions for screens and murals and produced decorative ensembles, including 18 panels for the dining room of Baron de Domecy, a long-time patron. Even towards the end of his life, when he finally achieved the fame he deserved, he remained a deeply private person. He died in Paris in 1916, his last painting - The Virgin - was left unfinished.
In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art held a large retrospective of his work entitled Beyond the Visible. It presented a full range of his works, his charcoal noirs, luminous pastels, dramatically shaded lithographs and richly textured oil, pastels and tempera paintings. The exhibition included a gift of over 100 paintings, prints and drawings donated by the Ian Woodner Family Collection. After his death, Redon's family and friends completed a project he had started, the publication of several sections of his diary into a sort of autobiography (A Soi-Meme, 1922). Paintings and prints by Odilon Redon can be found in the world's best art museums, including the Paris Louvre.