Symbolism – Odilon Redon; Night and Day

French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916) wrote in his journal in 1903;  “I love nature in all her forms … the humble flower, tree, ground and rocks, up to the majestic peaks of mountains … I also shiver deeply at the mystery of solitude.”

A painter, lithographer, and etcher of considerable poetic sensitivity and imagination, his work developed along two divergent lines. Initially his (mostly monochrome) prints explored haunted, often macabre, themes of fantasy. However, in about 1890 he turned to painting vibrant dreamscapes in colour.

Redon’s interest was in the portrayal of imagination rather than visual perception, and like a number of Symbolists, he suffered from periodic depression. Redon’s work represented an exploration of his internal feelings and psyche. He himself wanted to “place the visible at the service of the invisible” so, although his work seems filled with strange beings and grotesque dichotomies, his aim was to pictorially represent the ghosts of his own mind.

Although a contemporary of the Impressionists, he felt that Impressionism lacked the ambiguity which he sought in his work – his artistic roots were more in Romanticism, and, like many others, he was also influenced by Puvis de Chavannes and Delacroix.

Odilon Redon spent much of his childhood at Peyrelebade (in Bordeaux) in France, which became a source of inspiration for his art. In 1863 he befriended artist Rodolphe Bresdin, who later taught him etching. Redon was so influenced by Bresdin that he didn’t use colour in his work for some time and instead worked in black and white. He stated, “black is the essential colour of all things,” and “colour is too capable of conveying emotion.”

After the 1870 Franco Prussian war, Redon settled in Paris where he learnt lithography from Henri Fantin-Latour  and discovered that the unique qualities of this technique enabled him to achieve infinite gradations of tone, fine-line drawing, and rich depictions of light and dark. He was profoundly concerned with the effects of light.


Redon drew on varied sources, from Francisco Goya, Edgar Allen Poe, and Shakespeare to Darwinian theory, for his mysterious, disturbing, and often melancholy Noirs lithography, etchings, and drawings. He produced nearly 200 prints, beginning in 1879 with the lithographs collectively titled The Dream. He completed another portfolio in 1882 which was  dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe. Rather than illustrating Poe, Redon’s lithographs are poems in visual terms, themselves evoking the poet’s world of private torment. There is also a link to Goya in Redon’s imagery of winged demons and menacing shapes, and one of his series was the Homage to Goya, 1885.

In 1884 Redon  took part in the Salon des Indépendants, of which he was one of the founders, and in the Salon of the XX in Brussels (in 1886, 1887 and 1890) and in the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.

After 1890 he began working seriously in colour in both oils and pastels, demonstrating his strong sense of harmony – this changed the nature of his work from the macabre and sombre to the joyous and exquisite. He introduced sensitive floral studies, and faces that appear to be dreaming or lost in reverie, and developed a unique palette of powdery and brilliant hues.

He began to work on large surfaces in 1900-1901, completing around fifteen panels for the château of Baron Robert de Domecy. On that occasion, he wrote to his friend Albert Bonger “I am covering the walls of a dining room with flowers, flowers of dreams, fauna of the imagination; all in large panels, treated with a bit of everything, distemper, “aoline”, oil, even with pastel which is giving good results at the moment, a giant pastel.”

The library at Fontfroide would be Redon’s great decorative work, which he completed in 1911.

Odilon Redon, Night, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12
Odilon Redon, Night, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12
Odilon Redon, Day, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12
Odilon Redon, Day, Library of Fontfroide Abbey, 1910-12

He also designed sets for Debussy’s Ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, which premiered in 1912.

Odilon Redon, design for Debussy's theatre set, 1912
Odilon Redon, design for Debussy’s theatre set, 1912

Redon’s evocative images attracted the praise of many Symbolist writers and admiration from painters as various as Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Matisse. He was an important influence on a younger generation of artists such as the Nabis, a group of post-impressionist painters whose style incorporated decorative and symbolist elements.

My gallery, Kiama Art Gallery, has a selection of Heliogravures by Odilon Redon, which were produced in 1925, which you may enjoy.

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

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