Research point: The work of Odilon Redon

The following text is intended as a learning log entry on the work of Odilon Redon. The notes on his techniques is derived almost entirely from a single source (citation 8). This source has been credited at appropriate points throughout the text.

Until Bertrand-Jean (Odilon) Redon (1840-1916) reached fifty years of age, his work consisted almost exclusively of monotone drawings, usually charcoal or black pastel. Many of his subjects were superficially fantasy but most were based in an acute observation of nature. Although others coined the term Symbolism for Redon’s drawings, this was not a term used by Redon himself to describe his work. Because of their monotone nature, Redon referred to these drawings as noirs. Many of his drawings were used to produce lithographs, extending the possible number of copies of a given image(1). An example of this is the lithograph The (smiling) Spider (drawing 1881, lithograph 1887 (1) .

The American Institute for Conservation has recently researched Redon’s materials and methods in more than 300 works in Europe and the US(8). Changes in the patterns of Redon’s choices of techniques and materials have allowed more accurate dating of many of his works(8). Their research has shown that Redon began drawing with vine and oiled charcoal(8) (vine charcoal soaked in linseed oil, which can more strongly adhere to paper than unoiled charcoal and produces a warmer brown-black tone which darkens over time as the paper absorbs the oil(8)). Sometimes he used compressed charcoal and black crayon, probably conte(8), each of which would produce different shades and intensity of black. In the mid- to late 1870s, Redon switched to a form of handmade black chalk as well as compressed charcoal, which he used “primarily to outline compositional elements over broad tonal passages of charcoal”(8) . After the mid-1880s, he changed his drawing medium again, favouring black pastel for producing intense darks over other warmer brown or grey media, which served to accentuate the lines of black pastel that overlaid them. Redon applied fixative at different stages of drawing, adding a final saturating layer of fixative to the reverse side of a drawing upon its completion(8).

In some drawings, Redon prepared his paper with a base of ground charcoal, over which he stumped and erased charcoal to produce form and “to establish distant vistas […] and a recession into deep panoramic space”(8). By applying these techniques, he was able to isolate objects and figures from the dark ground.

Further techniques used by Redon have been identified in drawings such as Tree(12), a noir dating from c. 1875 in the Art Institute of Chicago. These include “incising with a pointed tool, scraping with a hard-bristled brush, and lifting of media with a sponge or his hands”(8) . He also worked in the wet surface with his fingers after applying fixative (his fingerprints can be identified in Tree) and reapplied the charcoal elsewhere, and may have scraped charcoal away with his fingernails(8) .

In these ways, Redon integrated the paper itself as a tonal element in his drawings(8) . He used a variety of different papers, some with coloured fibres; also, the balsam fixative that he favoured turned the paper yellowish over time, affecting the underlying tone of a drawing further(8). Thus, an additional tonal element in his work appeared some time after he had finished manipulating the surface. An example of this discoloration is The Eye Balloon (1878 – “Various charcoals, with stumping, erasing, and incising, heightened with traces of white chalk, on yellow-cream wove paper altered to a pale golden tone” (10) ). Only towards the end of his life did Redon desist from using fixative(8) .

Contrast these earlier black and white drawings with the work produced after 1890, which was predominantly in colour, using oils or pastels. One example is “La Cellule d’Or” (The Golden Cell), also known as the profil bleu, a profile of a woman’s head viewed from her left side (1892 – Oil and coloured chalks, with gold)(2) . Although Redon now chose to display works in colour, he had already used colour, often muted, in earlier landscape studies(3) – such as Landscape at Daybreak, 1872 (4) and Landscape with Rocks, near Royan, 1875 (5). The work produced after 1890, however, used colours that are vibrant and alive. Richard Hobbs postulates that the “joy and optimism of the late colour works”(3), a new direction in Redon’s work, was stimulated by his second son, Ari who, in 1890, was eleven years old.

In his earliest pastels Redon “applied color over charcoal underdrawings, combining pastel, gouache and pastes made from crushed pastel mixed with water and applied with a brush”(8) . Pastels were applied with short strokes without blending and then might be overlaid with gouache, as in Figure holding a winged head (1875) (11). Portraits might be overlaid with graphite or black crayon to delineate outlines. This can be seen in the painting of his wife, Portrait of Madame Redon embroidering (1880) (15).

During this later period, many earlier motifs were repeated or developed and for a decade, Redon continued to work on his noirs in addition to exploring colour (3). Some noirs were reworked in pastel, essentially using the noir as an underpainting, such as Salome (1893) (13), into which he introduced a second figure.

Over time, this practice lessened and the pastels that Redon produced were new works rather than reworking of existing ones. Soft and hard pastels, sharpened or blunt, were all used in these later works. Sometimes, he wetted the end of a pastel stick for a denser, impasto effect(8) , for example, in the 1898 portrait of his son, Ari (14). New themes also appeared, particularly flowers, sometimes as a major focus, such as in the aptly-named Flowers (1903) (9). However, these paintings were not conventional still lives; Redon’s flowers, foliage and butterflies were imaginary with the focus on colour.

Sometimes flowers were used to complement another image, often a woman. In Fleurs étranges (c.1910), a woman is seen leaving the frame, left, only her red cap and ringlets in her hair and one shoulder are visible. Behind her are flowers from the artist’s imagination, possibly butterflies, with more purple flowers in the middle distance creating an abstract image in which colour applied with imagination is more important than the motif, creating “”an impression of poetic unreality” (7). The red of her cap and auburn tones in her hair are balanced by the deeper rusty red of the soil in the bottom right corner. Traces of the colours of the flowers appear in the material of the woman’s dress and in the distant sky and the viewer’s eye is carried around the painting continually connecting different areas of the image through Redon’s vibrant use of colour.

1 The British Museum, Odilon Redon, The Spider, a lithograph.,_the_spider,_a_li.aspx

2 Odilon Redon “La Cellule d’Or” (The Golden Cell), profile of a woman’s head to left. 1892 The British Museum Accessed 04.08.11
“La Cellule d’Or” (The Golden Cell), profile of a woman’s head to left. 1892

3 Hobbs, Richard. Redon, Odilon (Bertrand-Jean) (2009) Oxford Art Online. This article has also been reproduced by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York and can also be found at Accessed 04.08.11

4 Odilon Redon Landscape at Daybreak, 1872 Oil on canvas, 15 1/8 x 21 3/4″ (38.4 x 55.3 cm). Gift of The Ian Woodner Family Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Accessed 04.08.11

5 Odilon Redon Landscape with Rocks, near Royan, c. 1875. Oil over black chalk on gray cardstock mounted on tan board, 8 3/8 x 10 1/2″ (21.3 x 26.7 cm). Gift of The Ian Woodner Family Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Accessed 04.08.11

6 Odilon Redon Fleurs étranges c 1910 oil on card
Musée départemental du Prieuré, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France Accessed 04.08.11

7 Odilon Redon Fleurs étranges
Accessed 04.08.11

8 Stratis, Harriet, K. A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon’s Pastels and Noirs The American Institute for Conservation, Book and Paper Group Annual, Vol. 14, 1995. Accessed 04.08.11

9 Odilon Redon (1903) Flowers Accessed 04.08.11

10 Odilon Redon (1878) The Eye Balloon Accessed 04.08.11

11 Odilon Redon (1875) Figure holding a winged head Accessed 04.08.11

12 Odilon Redon (c. 1875) Tree. The Art Institute of Chicago. Accessed 04.08.11

13 Odilon Redon (c. 1893) Salome
Accessed 04.08.11

14 Odilon Redon (1898) Portrait of Ari. Accessed 04.08.11

15 Odilon Redon (1889) Portrait Of Madame Redon Embroidering
Accessed 04.08.11


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