Bertrand-Jean Redon, better known as Odilon Redon (April 20, 1840 – July 6, 1916) was a French symbolist painter, printmaker, draughtsman and pastellist.
Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, to a prosperous family. The young Bertrand-Jean Redon acquired the nickname 'Odilon' from his mother, Odile. Redon started drawing as a child, and at the age of ten he was awarded a drawing prize at school. Aged fifteen, he began the formal study of drawing, but on the insistence of his father he changed to architecture. His failure to pass the entrance exams at Paris' École des Beaux-Arts ended any plans for a career as an architect, although he briefly studied painting there under Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1864. (His younger brother Gaston Redon would become a noted architect.)
Back home in his native Bordeaux, he took up sculpture, and Rodolphe Bresdin instructed him in etching and lithography. His artistic career was interrupted in 1870 when he joined the army to serve in the Franco-Prussian War.
At the end of the war, he moved to Paris, working almost exclusively in charcoal and lithography. He called his visionary works, conceived in shades of black, his noirs. It would not be until 1870 that his work gained any recognition with Guardian Spirit of the Waters, and he published his first album of lithographs, titled Dans le Rêve, in 1879. Still, Redon remained relatively unknown until the appearance in 188of a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans titled, À rebours (Against Nature). The story featured a decadent aristocrat who collected Redon's drawings.
In the 1890s, pastel and oils became his favored media, and he produced no more noirs after 1900. In 1899, he exhibited with the Nabis at Durand-Ruel's. In 190he was awarded the Legion of Honor. His popularity increased when a catalogue of etchings and lithographs was published by André Mellerio in 191and that same year, he was given the largest single representation at the New York Armory Show.
Redon died on July 6, 1916. In 192Mellerio published: Odilon Redon: Peintre Dessinateur et Graveur. An archive of Mellerio's papers is held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 200the Museum of Modern Art launched an exhibition entitled 'Beyond The Visible', a comprehensive overview of Redon's work showcasing more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints and books from The Ian Woodner Family Collection. The exhibition ran from October 30, 200to January 23, 2006. Analysis of his workPortrait of Violette Heymann, 1910. Pastels, 7x 9cm. Cleveland Museum of Art.
The mystery and the evocation of the drawings are described by Huysmans in the following passage:
'Those were the pictures bearing the signature: Odilon Redon. They held, between their gold-edged frames of unpolished pearwood, undreamed-of images: a Merovingian-type head, resting upon a cup; a bearded man, reminiscent both of a Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannon-ball with his finger; a spider with a human face lodged in the centre of its body. Then there were charcoal sketches which delved even deeper into the terrors of fever-ridden dreams. Here, on an enormous die, a melancholy eyelid winked; over there stretched dry and arid landscapes, calcinated plains, heaving and quaking ground, where volcanos erupted into rebellious clouds, under foul and murky skies; sometimes the subjects seemed to have been taken from the nightmarish dreams of science, and hark back to prehistoric times; monstrous flora bloomed on the rocks; everywhere, in among the erratic blocks and glacial mud, were figures whose simian appearance--heavy jawbone, protruding brows, receding forehead, and flattened skull top--recalled the ancestral head, the head of the first Quaternary Period, the head of man when he was still fructivorous and without speech, the contemporary of the mammoth, of the rhinoceros with septate nostrils, and of the giant bear. These drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of painting, they ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium.'
Redon also describes his work as ambiguous and undefinable:
'My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.'
Redon's work represent an exploration of his internal feelings and psyche. He himself wanted to 'place the visible at the service of the invisible'; thus, although his work seems filled with strange beings and grotesque dichotomies, his aim was to represent pictorially the ghosts of his own mind. A telling source of Redon's inspiration and the forces behind his works can be found in his journal A Soi-même (To Myself). His process was explained best by himself when he said:
'I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased.'