French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon endeavored to give form to his most inner thoughts, emotions and dreams by producing vague, shadowy shapes and sumptuous textures. He used his knowledge of various subjects, ranging from architecture to natural history, to create a body of Symbolist work that consisted of brilliantly colored flowers, landscapes and literary subjects.
Bertrand-Jean Redon, known later as Odilon, was born April 22, 1840 in Bordeaux, Aquitaine, France to Bertrand Redon and Marie Guerin. He showed a talent for art at an early age and went on to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Jean-Léon Gerôme.
Around 1861, Odilon Redon was introduced to the writings of Flaubert, Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe. Greatly inspired by their work, he began producing drawings and lithographs. In 1864, he enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts to study painting, but was soon disillusioned with the school’s established views and rigid rules regarding art. He left the school desiring greater freedom to create. Odilon found a friend in Rudolphe Bresdin who had also rejected the official art world. Back in his native Bordeaux, Bresdin instructed Redon in etching and lithography, and introduced him to Rembrandt and Dürer. A study of Baudelaire and Delacroix’s works in 1869 inspired his black and white lithographs, which expressed a mysterious and often disturbing side of the artist’s imagination.
In 1870, Redon’s career was interrupted when he joined the army to serve in the Franco-Prussian War. After the war, he moved to Paris where he worked primarily in black and white lithography and charcoal until the 1890s. 'Mephistopheles' (1877) and 'Head of a Martyr on a Platter' (1877) are some of the charcoal drawings he created from this period. A year later, he gained recognition with ‘Guardian Spirit of the Waters’, and then published his first album of lithographs entitled ‘Dans le Rêve’ in 1879. Although the artist’s career seemed to be well on its way, his first drawing exhibition in 1881 was not well received.
Odilon Redon served as the first Vice President of the Societé des Artistes Independants in 1884. He had gained some notoriety upon the release of a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans titled ‘A rebours (Against Nature). The story featured a decadent aristocrat who collected Redon's drawings.
In the 1890s, the artist suffered from a major illness, and upon recovery, his outlook on life was a little brighter. Vivid colors in oils and pastels replaced the somber tones of the past. As his art became more colorful, it led to more commissions for screens and murals. His works which had always reflected his grave thoughts and dreams now brimmed with new found hope and happiness.
A catalogue of etchings and lithographs published by André Mellerio in 1913 confirmed his popularity, and that same year, he was given the largest single representation at the New York Armory Show.
Odilon Redon died on July 6, 1916 in Paris, his last oil on canvas ‘Virgin’ never completed. In 2005, The Museum of Modern Art (New York City) 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’. While Redon may have been a very private person throughout his lifetime, he shared his most inner thoughts and dreams with the world through his work, which will forever be admired by many.