Project – Making Marks

Research Point – Odilon Redon
Bertrand-Jean Redon, nicknamed Odilon by his Creole mother Odile, was born in 1840 into a wealthy family in Bordeaux. He started drawing whilst young and showed promise. Apparently he was neglected by his parents and mostly lived with an elderly uncle on a family estate.

He briefly studied painting in Paris and then drawing and painting in Bordeaux. His influences were Rembrandt, Corot, Moreau, Millet and Delacroix.

His studies were interrupted by the Franco Prussian War in 1870 from which he returned and took up charcoal drawing and lithography in Paris.

He received little recognition until 1878 when he published his first album of lithographs, In Dreams, and also became known as a writer and violinist. Further acclaim came with the publishing of a novel in which was contained his lithographs and he went on to produce lithographs to illustrate the works of authors and poets, in particular Edgar Allen Poe who’s stories influenced his imaginative work.

Redon used the exhibitions of his lithographs to bring his charcoal drawings to a wider audience. When the term “Symbolism” became the description for the new art and literature in 1866 Redon was considered the major Symbolism artist though he was not aligned with the views of such a movement.

His charcoal drawings are generally reflect melancholia and reveal a man of deep and possibly disturbed thoughts. He depicts the strange and often weird images he carries in his mind which might either be derived from others, i.e. Edgar Allen Poe, or his own creations, in particular his prediliction with eyeballs. However not all his drawings of this era were imagined, he also drew landscapes and figures though the overall effect, perhaps communicated by the charcoal, is sombre.

Examination of his early drawings particularly his charcoal drawings reveal a definite gloom. He used different types of charcoal, vine, oil and compressed, and also Conte crayon and had a distinctive style of layering the charcoal so darker detail would appear over lighter backgrounds. He also used powdered charcoal as a base and lifted out areas to form detail with erasers, stumps and fingers and also used coarsely ground charcoal applied with a brush. He predominantly used coloured paper for his charcoal drawings as these rendered a certain hue to the drawing.

Typical works of that era were – Smiling Cyclops, Eye Like a Balloon, the Accused, Guardian of the Waters and Calibran on a Branch.


Redon said of his charcoal drawings, his “noirs”, that they were “executed in hours of sadness and pain”. Also he claimed he was constantly being surprised by his own art. The art author, Arthur Symons wrote of Redon in 1890 as “a kind of French Blake”.

Redon also describes his work as ambiguous and indefinable – ”My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”
Maurice Denis a contemporary painter declared that “the lesson of Redon is his powerlessness to paint anything which is not representative of a state of soul, which does not express some depth of emotion, which does not translate an interior vision”
His use of pastels at first was limited to pastel detail over a charcoal underdrawing but he developed to use solely pastels which he manipulated in order to achieve different effects. He used soft and hard pastels and often Conte crayons to illustrate detail. He used brushwork in order to merge shades and to reveal an underlying colour. He forsook his haunted themes with charcoal and his subjects were mostly still life and often flowers.

Redon experimented with spray fixatives in order to fix the loose particles of charcoal and pastels and had to experiment significantly with pastels as the fixative was likely to discolour the hue of the pastel and alter its particle texture/quality. He gave up using fixative in his later pastel work, probably in frustration

His pastels are colourful, he uses, primary and secondary colours and also there is an element of modernism or even abstraction in some – Flight into Egypt, Pantheon, Temptation and Woman in Red.



His emerging skills as a colourist developed into his colourful oil paintings. This transition from melancholy to cheerful is maybe explained by an unhappy early life which was affected by epilepsy and which was transformed by a religious crisis and serious illness in 1894 from which he emerged a happier, but still private, man.

His paintings, predominantly oil based, are again colourful and range from simple flowers in vases, heads and single figures, Icarus and Oedipus. It is noted that the humans he depicts are mostly doleful and that he often returns to his darker themes. However he stretches these images in paintings such as the Masked Anemone (w/c), The Green Death (oil), Christ and the Disciples (oil),  Birth of Venus (oil), into semi-abstraction in A Boat (oil), and Apollo’s Chariot (oil).



Building on his experiences with monochrome, where tone defines the picture, he was able to produce good blends and arrays in his colour paintings. His paintings become more decorative and after 1900 he undertook decorative commissions.

During this painting era his paintings became widely exhibited in France, Belgium, Holland and America though generally he was not popular with the paying public and his income was mostly derived from patrons and collectors. His work was admired by Matisse and he was acknowledged as a forerunner of the Surrealist movement.

In 1893 he was awarded the Legion d’honneure and in 1894 the French State bought one of his paintings and paid him tribute which was just reward for a long and varied career.

On a visit to London in 1895 Redon said he was impressed by the work of Turner. Is there an influence there in his latter paintings – Red Boat with Blue Sail?

Looking at the series of his pictures over his artistic life it is easy to see a progression of styles and themes. In his last few years his paintings become almost “traditional” but in his final finished painting, The Cyclops, he reverts to his old ways.

He died a distinguished person in 1916.

A good research point. I learned a lot about an artist whom I had never heard of. The range and extremes of paintings delivered over his life was very interesting.


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