Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon was a French painter, designer and printmaker. His career flourished during the Symbolist period between the late 19th century and early 20th century. Similar to Gustave Moreau, he was also such an inspiration for the Surrealists, recognizing him as of their prominent predecessors. He was a versatile artist who received training and education from the cream of the crop.

Redon started late in his painting career because he pursued a diverse range of career paths during his younger years. His father wanted him to be an architect but he failed the entrance exams at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, after which he pursued a sculptural training instead back in his hometown, Bordeaux. However, this did not make him become a sculpture, but as a lithographer and printmaker. Just like many artists of his time, during the 1870, his work was interrupted due to the Franco-Prussian war.

Redon was also passionate about contemporary literature. This area of interest was influenced by Armand Clavaud, who became his scholarly mentor and friend throughout the mature years of his career. Clavaud might have influenced him to write art criticisms and reviews of the Paris Salon exhibitions. However, it was Rodolphe Bresdin that totally influenced him to commit himself to fine arts. Bresdin was an engraver and inevitably taught him the rudiments of etching.

During Redon’s golden years, he produced several writings, paintings, and etchings. Few examples of his works include Caliban (1881), Arbres sur un fond jaune (1901), The Buddha (1904), Butterflies (1910), and Portrait of Violette Heymann (1910).

Early Life

Bertrand Jean “Odilon” Redon was bron on April 20, 1840 in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France. He came from a well-off family and his nickname “Odilon” was derived from the name of his mother, Odile. He showed interest in drawing at a young age. He participated in drawing competitions held by his primary school, and he had a successful stint.

Redon spent most of his childhood days observing the views of Peyrelevade, which sparked his interest in art. The place provided him subjects from his own fantasies and nature. However, he did not exclusively devoted himself to painting Peyrelevade nor Bordeaux unlike what the English landscapist John Constable did. But Redon did return to Peyrevelade constantly until 1897 when the estate had been sold.

Early Career

Redon took his art lessons formally at the age of fifteen, when his father told him insistently to take up architecture. However, he had an unsuccessful attempt in entering the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He studied painting albeit briefly under the mentorship of Jean-Leon Gerome in 1864.

The remaining years of the 1860’s were spent in Bordeaux where he studied sculpture and etching under Rodolphe Bresdin. In 1865 he fomented collaboration with Bresdin to produce a series of eaux-fortes. They have finished drawing the series by 1866 at Delatre. The etchings were made of small sizes and cuts yet the drawings were rich and succinct in its details. It is said that Redon used Delacroix’ the Crusaders close to the Sea as an inspiration for subject, while he relied on Rembrandt’s clair-obscure painting style. Other inspirations might come from the works of writers Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, and Flaubert.

Redon learned so much from the said engraver and he leveraged it by publishing a couple of his early writings in 1868 and 1869. He primarily reviewed the art shows conducted at the Paris Salon, one of the reviews was featured at La Gironde newspaper. Redon’s criticism displayed traces of his rural artistic values. His personal prediction of the art industry was painters would advocate the use of imagination rather than painting subjects as they see them as it is. This view sounded similar to how Rembrandt, Delacroix and Corot wanted for their art to develop, giving the human imagination and fantasy a chance to be represented in paintings rather than pure realism.

1870’s to 1890’s

Unfortunately, in 1870, the Franco-Prussian War erupted which prompted him to stop working and join the French military instead. But at some point, probably before the war, he still was able to paint Roland a Roncevaux in 1870, which he submitted to the 19th Show of arts. He had also accepted a commission by his friend Career for whom he painted large-size wall paintings in a local chapel at Arras.
Despite of the traumatic effects of the war, he even took these as an experience which made him realize that he was meant for the arts, indeed. Right after the war ended in 1871, he settled in Paris to resume his career and focused on lithography. He practice charcoal as a shading technique and produced Noirs, a compilation of his charcoal drawings yet unpublished at the time.

In 1874, Redon’s father died and left them with no inheritance. So to be able to continue his training, he studied the views of Barbizon during the spring of 1875. Barbizon provided him an inspiration for subjects like trees and the Underwood town itself. July of that year he went to Brittany only to find himself enduring the “most distressed period” of his Les Noirs. He produced charcoal drawings of a prisoner that is often depicted appearing behind the window bars, having a nightmare from a daydream, or obsessing over a profane hallucination.

In 1878, the Guardian Spirit of the Waters etching received significant recognition from the audience. This success signaled him to put his etchings and charcoal drawings into a single collection titled Dans le Reve which was published in 1879. This compilation provided as an inspiration to other artists, particularly the novelist Joris Karl Huysmans who wrote A Rebours modeled on the drawings of Redon.

Between 1880’s and 1980’s, Redon actively worked as a lithographer with a goal to promote Noirs to a wider range of audience. His style became richer and vivid but in order to be unique on the market, he developed the so-called captioned etchings technique so he could write captions and titles on them. A prime example of this kind of work would be the 1885 The Marsh Flower, a Sad and Human Head. The caption in this piece was commended by Stephane Mallarme.

Beyond those titles and captions, Roden’s works displayed powerful imagery that would emancipate sense of imagination from the audience. However odd most of his charcoal drawings might be, his audience simply appreciated his technical knowledge and skill in representing those macabre scenes vividly.

In 1881, his lithograph albums were displayed at the Paris Salon exhibitions. His works had also appeared on La Vie modern and Le Gaulois. Three years later his first exhibition, he lent a hand in organizing the first art show of the Salon des Independants. And then, the Impressionist Exhibition in 1886 organizers invited him to display some of his works. He received praises from the literary circle of the Parisian avant-garde for his aesthetics and artistic principles that seemed to resonate with Baudelaire’s Decadents. Subsequently, Huysmans wrote a cult novel based on Redon’s Les Noirs.
Ever since then, Redon had been considered a major Symbolist painter. His name even became synonymous with the word Symbolism because his style and art in general clearly define the new art and literature movement. He took captured the interest of other Symbolist critics and artists from Belgium and whole of France but he opted to stay away from it or at least remain discreet about it because he thought that it was too much to bear.

In 1898, he collaborated with the literary scholar, Mallarme. Together, they attempted to produce Un Coup de des but the series was not completed. Their colleagues once called Redon as the Mallarme of painting.

Black and White to Multi-colored Painting

Throughout the 1890’s, Redon was known for exlusively painting in black and white. But art historians say that the artist had actually been experimenting with other colors since 1890 although his subject-matter related to Noirs remained the same. He started painting in oil on canvas such as Closed Eyes (1890) and in pastels such as Christ in Silence (1895).

Come 1900, Redon traded his monochrome pallete for pastels and oils completely. He used a different set of motifs, themes and subjects as well, and this time, he painted flowers constantly. His art slowly changed to decorative than symbolic, and this opened a window of lucrative opportunities. With that, it can be understood that the sudden change in his art was brought about by the desire to receive several commissions.

During the 20th century, most of his works had been mural paintings. A prime example is the wall paintings he executed for the Fontfroide Abbey Library near Narbonne. The murals seem to induce music upon the ears, which is surprising because in his Les Noirs, the drawings affect melancholy and loneliness. The only thing that remained unaltered with Redon’s style was his eye for aesthetics. Critics believe that the way Redon transformed nature into fantastical and dreamy images is suggestive of his stable mind and emotion and passion for independence.

The new Redon was admired by the painters at the time such as Matisse and the followers of Nabis and Fauves. In 1899, he exhibited at the Paul Durand-Ruel exhibition along with the works of the Nabis. The art experts interpret this as Redon’s way of paying homage to the younger generation of painters such as Vuillard and Bonnard for looking up to him as an important figure. He even befriended some younger writers such as Cocteau and Gide.


Only during the last few years of Redon’s life did he truly felt his popularity and the prestige that comes with it. Even his own son, Ari, was an avid support of his art contributing much of his success to the optimism and lighthearted-ness of his art work. Several of Redon’s works are now located at Musee d’Orsay in Paris and Louvre.

Odilon Redon died in Paris on July 6, 1916 at the age of 76.