France • 1840−1916
Odilon Redon (born Bertrand-Jean Redon; April 20, 1840, Bordeaux – July 6, 1916, Paris) was a French painter and draughtsman. A contemporary of the Impressionists, Redon chose his own path and a unique way of rebelling against the academic tradition: symbolism and capturing the most unimaginable images, born of imagination.

Odilon Redon's artistic style: being a visionary and a contemplative observer, Redon carefully studied the world around him, convincingly constructing images, suggested by imagination, intuition, or fantasy. It’s a rare case when the artist's life is divided into two distinct periods: the black one and the colour one. Odilon Redon worked only in charcoal and in lithography until he turned 50 – that was a period of "noirs", fantastic creatures and big flying heads, smiling and weeping spiders. After 1890, an unrestrained, harmonious, fantastically organized colour poured into his work. The artist began using oils and pastel to paint those imaginary, wonderful visions, arranged strictly according to the laws of nature.

Famous paintings by Odilon Redon: Guardian Spirit of the Waters, The Smiling Spider, Cyclops, Spirit of the Forest (Specter from a Giant Tree), The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity, Closed Eyes.

Phantasmagoric creatures, either animals, or plants, flying eyes and soaring teeth, spiders with human faces, spirits flying over the water, and ancient gods walking on the blossoming sky. Boats in the midst of an unidentified environment and asexual creatures emerging above the horizon with their eyes closed. Odilon Redon depicted landscapes and states of the world with impressionistic accuracy and passion. That world, however, existed only in his imagination. With the same blind obsession with which the artist's contemporary Monet caught sunlight on the leaves of poplars, Redon peered at the stirring of primitive matter, from which vague shapes and mysterious creatures emerged.

The artist, who could be easily suspected of decadent experiments with psychotropics or abuse of absinthe, was actually a passionate reader, natural sciences enthusiast, happy husband and father, devoted disciple and friend. He was a man who once wrote in his diary: "What a pleasure to read in a quiet room with the window open onto the forest."

The lonely dreamer
Silence and loneliness were Bertrand-Jean Redon's favourite games. Later, the boy would be called Odilon – a nickname, derived from his mother's first name, Odile, would gradually replace the one he received at birth. Redon's father was an adventurer and a wealth seeker, who went to New Orleans to cut down forests in hopes of getting rich, returning to France, marrying and buying a big house. In 1840, he sailed back home with a wealth far greater than he expected to get. With his son and a pregnant wife beside him. The Redons' second child was born a couple of weeks after their arrival in France, but something was wrong with him.

A large lonely estate in Médoc, surrounded by vineyards, impassable groves, thickets of wild blackberries and heather, became his home for the next 10 years. Painful and weak, Odilon was left in the care of a nanny and uncle, who was also engaged in economic affairs of the estate. He dreamt, wrapped in heavy thick curtains, wandered through the fields and lay in the grass all day long, looking at the clouds and finding silhouettes of strange creatures in their outlines. Whether his parents were ashamed of some manifestations of his childhood illness or simply didn't want to cater to an unhealthy child – but Odilon lived without them till he turned 11. And basically without people.

And yet, it got worse with people. From 11 to 18 years Redon changed two boarding schools, where he languished of chaotic knowledge, anger and resentment at the futility of that which was happening. Until he met real, sincere, inspiring teachers, who each in their own way acquainted Odilon with the joy of learning, experiencing beauty and close human relations.

Three teachers
Seven school years would have been a pure evil and a waste of effort, if in his free time the boy hadn't started studying drawing under the watercolourist Stanislas Gorin. "You are the artist," he said to his disciple. "And therefore you should never make a single mark with a pencil unless your feeling and your reason are in it." Laws of light and copying, emotions and poetic comments, study of nature and exhibitions that Gorin managed to arrange in the province on his own: he brought to Bordeaux the paintings by MilletCorot and Delacroix. "Later when I went to Paris to try my hand at a more comprehensive educational system, it was too late, luckily; the job had already been done. I have hardly strayed since from the influences of this first romantic and enthusiastic teacher," wrote Redon in his diary later.

The botanist Armand Clavaud was 12 years older than Redon – and his influence on the future artist was powerful and determinant. Darwin's theory of evolution, freshly published books by Flaubert and Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, the dramatic hand gestures in Delacroix paintings, endlessly beautiful, carefully sorted herbariums, Buddhism and Hindu poems, his own theory of the connection between flora and fauna – all this Odilon learned from his older friend. This friendship determined Redon's tastes, passion for reading, enthusiasm for science and world view. When Armand Clavaud died, Redon was a recognized artist, the author of a brilliant series of graphic works and the founder of Society of Independent Artists. When Armand Clavaud died, Redon created his first colourful oil painting. When Armand Clavaud committed suicide, 50-year-old Redon wrote in his diary: "I suddenly felt that I lost my footing. Despite his idealism, he who was older than me and whose education was strictly scientific, was a rock. I paid heed to him."

Redon was unlucky with his official teachers who ignored his incomprehensible talent. He would fail the exams when trying to study as an architect at his father's request, he would spend a year unsuccessfully trying to do sculpture, he would freeze with his heart trembling and beating hard when his painting teacher, the famous Salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, approached his easel to make impatient, furious changes, without restraining his irritation. In this ongoing fruitless search, Redon's meeting with the lithographer Rodolphe Bresdin was decisive. Bresdin didn't just teach Redon lithography and engraving techniques, but also believed in the artist’s individuality and strange dreams. Impressed by his teacher's work and artistic views, Odilon managed to find his own way in which art wasn't restricted to depicting visible objects, but "existed in the beyond, illuminated and amplified the object and raised the spirit into the region of mystery"

The region of mystery

To the surprise of his relatives and friends, Odilon Redon volunteered for the Franco-Prussian war. He wasn't a warrior or a fighter, didn't like imposed affairs and entertainment: instead, he read and went to concerts, lived in Montparnasse, and spent summers in that lonely estate where he lived in his childhood. "When I am alone, I love the open highways; I talk with myself alone. I walk along freely and my body leaves my mind unchained; it argues, reasons, presses me with questions. But with God, and as a friend of nature, I prefer paths encumbered by the obstacles of a wild way which no human labor has touched. My foot moves freely through the damp grass and I am inspired by the contact of the branch that my face grazes; the stones, the bushes, though filled with thorns, stop me only to converse with me and speak to me; and even in a dark, black wood, I love the storm, the abundant rain, the cold, the ice and the snow," wrote Redon. And it seems that the war was for him a serious conversation with God, interlurded with high words.

On the wall of Redon's studio there hung Dürer's engraving Melencolia. It was a landmark, a mantra, a great song, a few bars of which the artist slightly echoed. Battles for new art were raging behind Redon's door – the Impressionists organized exhibitions and were fighting for the importance of the momentary. Meanwhile, Redon was creating his albums of lithographs, in which he moved away from the present and the momentary to the beginning of the world, to the primordial chaos, from which any incredible form, any unprecedented creature could be born.

Redon spent a lot of time persistently depicting images of his visionary world, without striving for fame or validation of new ideas in art. He created albums of lithographs based on Flaubert's poem The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Homage to Goya, based on the stories of Edgar Poe. The artist's first exhibitions were held in editorial departments of revolutionary publishing houses; his first admirers were writers and poets, Mallarmé admired the long titles Redon came up with for his work. Redon put the naturalistic literary school on edge (hence it stood for the truth of life, the cruel and uncompromising one) and mixed in the Symbolists. "I am thought to be too analytical of mind: that, at least, is what emerges from the curiosity I sense in the young writers who come to see me. I notice their amazement when they meet me. What did I put into my works to suggest so many subtleties? I put a little open door in them, giving onto mystery. I made fictions. It's up to them to go further," said Redon.

Going further
Odilon Redon started working in pastel in 1880, during his honeymoon. The artist was 40 years old, and he had never used coloured materials before, only charcoal and black-and-white print. The artist's biographers don't say much about his marriage with Camille Falte and their family life: he was incredibly happy, surprisingly happy. Except for the three years of difficult mental crisis following the death of Redon's first son until the birth of the second one. Camille negotiated with the press and dealers and maintained Odilon's connection with the Belgian Symbolists. Redon painted Camille till the end of his life.

The colour period began when the artist was 50. He started using oil and pastel instead of charcoal and lithography. He got acquainted with Gauguin and Les Nabis artists. His formerly black-and-white Buddha started walking on fantastic flowers of unearthly origin, his mystical boats were rushing under bright sails, and the loving Cyclops were silently observing the beautiful beloved ones.

Already in the 20th century, Redon's exhibitions were held throughout Europe and in three American cities, the artist was awarded the Legion of Honour, an entire room was dedicated to his colourful works at The Salon d'Automne (Autumn Salon) in Paris, and the art critic André Mellerio published a catalogue of his early lithographic work. At 60, the artist received his first commission for decorative wall painting, and at 68 created his most grandiose project – three panels on the walls of the library of the medieval Fontfroide Cistercian abbey.
Redon painted fantastic bouquets and mystical portraits, until God decided to have a serious conversation, interlurded with high words. At the beginning of World War I, his only son Arï went to war. The artist's anxiety for his son sapped his health – Redon died in Paris at the age of 73.

Author: Anna Sidelnikova
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