Research point: Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon

1840-1916 (French)  — Printmaker, draughtsman, painter

On studying Odilon Redon I quickly became aware of how extreme the transition is from his early work, which includes his melancholy and often disturbing charcoal Noirs,  to his later work which evolved into joyful and mystical imagery using a colourful palette of pastel and paint.

During a relatively long life as an artist Redon clearly developed and experimented but I also wonder whether this shift from the melancholy to joyful mirrored his life experiences and state of mind.

Redon drew inspiration and his visions of nature and fantasy (people, creatures, plants, trees, butterflies) from Peyrelebade, his father’s estate in the Médoc.

He served in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and describes this as the catalyst that made him return to his art. Maybe those war experiences were also the stimulus for the dark imagery.

Redon attempted unsuccessfully to be an architect and I find it interesting  that very few of his paintings feature buildings. Perhaps this unhappy experience contributed to his preference for painting natural rather than man-made objects?

He was an intellectual, a thinker and a writer and advocated imagination rather than the pursuit of realism.   Redon’s mind produced ever more dreamlike and mystical imagery as his life progressed.

In 1886 Redon lost a son in infancy but he found domestic happiness later in life after the birth of his second son in 1889 and this may have contributed to his later work becoming ever more colourful and joyous.

Clearly Redon was an important artist who influenced both his contemporaries and future artists, as well as artistic movements.

Artists that flashed through my mind as I studied his pictures included Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Blackadder, Louise Bourgeois, Salvador Dali, Gustav Klimt and Henri Matisse to name just a few.

By 1886 while living and exhibiting in Paris, Redon was considered to be the major Symbolist artist* although Redon distanced himself from the groups that debated such issues. His later works contributed to the advent of Fauvism.**

As a writer, Redon liked to give his pictures a literary link by using evocative titles such as “The Marsh Flower, a Sad and Human Head (1885).”  Again, I find myself thinking of Dali who also had a liking for intriguingly obscure titles.

As well as a painter and writer, Redon was an accomplished violinist and in my head I can hear a musical accompaniment to his art. Discordant, sombre  tones in the early years that later rise up to become high joyous notes that dance with the butterflies, as his world lights up and turns from black and white to colour.


Source material: Museum of Modern Art website:

*Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism and Impressionism.

**Movement in French painting from c. 1898 to 1906 characterised by a violence of colours.


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