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Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon was one of the most important Symbolist artists known for his visionary works exploring the realms of dreams, fantasy, and imagination.

Biography of Odilon Redon

Born into a prosperous family in Bordeaux as Bertrand Jean Redon, Odilon Redon derived his nickname from his mother, Odile, a French Creole woman from Louisiana. Due to his fragile health, potentially linked to epilepsy, Redon was placed under his uncle's guardianship and grew up on the family's winemaking estate in Peyrelebade, Medoc.

The artist's formative years were solitary, and he spent his days "watching the clouds pass, following with infinite pleasure the magical brightness of their fleeting variations." However, he described himself as a "sad and weak child" who often sought out shadows. His early sense of melancholy and pessimism became evident in his later art, particularly in his noirs and mysterious Symbolist works.

Returning to his family in Bordeaux, Redon began formal schooling at 11. After winning a drawing prize, his parents arranged for him to study under Stanislas Gorin in 1855. A skilled watercolorist, Gorin introduced Redon to Romantic artists like Eugène Delacroix and Francisco Goya, encouraging him to replicate their works. He also exposed Redon to contemporary artists such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Gustave Moreau.

Redon's father urged him to pursue architecture rather than art, but in 1857, he failed the entrance exams for architectural studies at the École des Beaux-Arts. In Paris, Redon forged a lasting and influential friendship with botanist Armand Clavaud, who introduced him to the scientific theories of Charles Darwin, literary works by Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Flaubert, and Edgar Allan Poe, and the sacred texts of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Continuing to paint watercolors in the style of Gorin, Redon produced his first major work, "Roland à Roncevaux," in 1862, depicting the Romantic hero of the Crusades in a style reminiscent of Delacroix. In 1864, he joined the atelier of renowned academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, an experience Redon described as "tortured" due to Gérôme's excessive focus on mimetic representation.

Seeking a more supportive atmosphere in 1865, Redon returned to his family home in Bordeaux and took up sculpture. During this period, he encountered Rodolphe Bresdin, an impoverished yet highly original and eccentric artist. Bresdin's detailed depictions of the natural world and visionary subjects profoundly influenced the young artist. Serving as a mentor, Bresdin taught Redon the art of making etchings and engravings, encouraging him to explore the realm of spirit and mystery that had already captivated Redon's imagination.

The 1870s marked a decade of significant transformation in Redon's life and artistic approach. Drafted into the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he experienced the war's aftermath, culminating in France's defeat and the subsequent Commune a year later. This experience disrupted his life and artistic pursuits, intensifying his inherent melancholic tendencies. Paradoxically, the tumultuous events of 1870-71 sparked a breakthrough in his art.

Upon returning to Paris, Redon commenced the creation of what he termed his 'noirs' – monochromatic charcoal drawings that skillfully harnessed the medium's deep black tones. The remarkable range of tone, texture, and shading achieved in these works stands out, comparable only to Georges Seurat's Conte crayon drawings from the same era. Black emerged as the ideal medium for Redon to convey his imaginative visions.

In 1872, Redon learned the transfer method of lithography from Henri Fantin-Latour. When the artist's father passed away, he turned to lithography as a means of making a living. Lithographic prints offered the advantage of being produced and sold in relatively large quantities, enabling him to reach a broader audience.

In 1876, he encountered the poet and art critic Stéphane Mallarmé, participating in regular gatherings at Mallarmé's home, where he engaged with various writers and artists within the Symbolist circle. Redon started to gain critical attention in the late 1870s, notably with the creation of his "Guardian Spirit of the Waters" in 1878. The following year, in 1879, he produced his inaugural lithographic series, titled "In the Dream.

In 1880, Redon married Camille Falte, a Creole woman resembling his mother. However, the joy of their marriage was overshadowed by the loss of their firstborn son, who passed away at six months old. This tragedy plunged Redon into a deep depression, poetically described as a "melancholy faintness."

Redon's association with Mallarmé's Salons led to encounters with Joris-Karl Huysmans, a critic and novelist, who became an avid admirer of the artist. Huysmans's Decadent novel "Against Nature" (1884), featuring a character with an art collection including Redon's works, significantly contributed to the artist's fame.

Around this time, Redon developed a friendship with Paul Gauguin, who appreciated and understood Redon's visionary art. Gauguin defended Redon against the characterization of painting monsters, emphasizing their imaginary nature and Redon's role as a dreamer and imaginative spirit.

In 1886, Redon exhibited with the Impressionists in their last group exhibition. This period marked a transition in modern art, moving from Impressionism to Symbolism. Redon's works signaled a shift from observing the fleeting effects of nature to an emphasis on subjectivity and inner vision.

In the 1890s, Redon underwent a significant transformation in his artistic approach, departing from the monochromatic works of his earlier career. During this period, he embraced color, working predominantly in pastels after years of focusing solely on black. Some art historians suggest that this shift could be attributed to a religious awakening, as evidenced by Redon's growing interest in subjects from Buddhism and Christianity. However, it's important to note that even his earlier black-and-white lithographs often explored religious themes. Some scholars speculate that Redon's happiness, particularly the birth of his second son, Ari, in 1889, may have influenced this embrace of color.

During the 1890s, Redon's continued friendship with Paul Gauguin introduced him to the young artists of the Nabis. Maurice Denis saw in Redon an established artist who used formal tools to express personal feelings, describing it as "the state of the artist's soul." Redon learned from younger artists, adopting their Japonisme, expressive use of color, and emphasis on decoration.

Influenced by Nabis' artists like Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who undertook large-scale decorative projects, Redon also ventured into such endeavors toward the end of his career. Notable examples include his wall paintings for the chateau of Baron Robert de Domecy and Fontfroide Abbey.

Redon's reputation continued to grow, and in 1903, he received the Legion of Honor from the French government. In 1913, a comprehensive catalog raisonné of his prints was published by the publisher André Mellerio. That same year, Redon gained international recognition when he participated in the groundbreaking Armory Show in New York, exhibiting more works than any other artist in the exhibition. 

The artist passed away in 1916, and his death may have been hastened by the anxiety and dread he experienced over his son, who was serving as a soldier on the front lines during World War I. 

Odilon Redon's Art Style

Odilon Redon initially gained fame for his noir series, in which he utilized monochromatic compositions to harness the expressive and suggestive qualities of the black color. His lithographs, often reworking earlier drawings, expand his audience and explore specific themes or literary texts in series, with a particular affinity for the Romantic and Symbolist works of Poe, Flaubert, and Mallarmé.

Over time, Redon gradually incorporated a more colorful palette, resulting in vibrant pastels and oil paintings dominated by portraits and floral still lifes. Influenced by the Nabis, his late works embraced a more decorative aesthetic, featuring elements of Japonism, flat, abstract patterns, and decorative ensembles.

Redon's impact extended to contemporaries like Paul Gauguin and later modern artists like Marcel Duchamp. Symbolist writers admired his lithographs and noirs, appreciated by later Surrealists for their often bizarre and fantastical subjects that seamlessly blended scientific observation with visionary imagination.

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