Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux on April 20, 1840 and died on July 6, 1916. The young Bertrand-Jean Redon acquired the nickname “Odilon” from his mother, Odile. He started drawing as a ten year old and even won a prize for his drawing but upon his father’s insistence switched to architecture as a teen. He failed to get into the architecture school at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts which ended that career before it started however continued to study painting there in 1864 under Jean-Léon Gérôme before returning to Bordeaux, where he took up sculpting. He studied with the draughtsman and engraver Rodolphe Bresdin who introduced him to etching and lithography.
He continued with his artistic career until 1870 when he was called to fight in the Franco-Prussian War.
After the war he returned to Paris and worked almost exclusively in charcoal and lithography and entered his “Noirs” period, making what he called his visionary works, almost entirely in shades of black. This picture above and the one below are very similar in their composition and feel, though done almost 20 years apart:
I have picked out a number of his works spanning the era of his use of charcoal and which reflect a wide variety of his works during the period of 1875 up to 1900, all of which show great depth, tone and shading which Redon portrayed so well.
In the first two pictures I am instantly drawn to the centre of the picture by the lines of the trees, the depth and shading give the picture a feeling of mystery and gloominess. I feel a heaviness in these two pictures which is alleviated when I inspect the pictures more closely and see that he has picked out spots of light and dappled greys on the bottoms of the trees, implying a more fantastical quality to his work, almost like he is illustrating a fairy tale about a deep dark woods.
At first the pictures look heavy, verging on clumsy, but when I study them more closely, there is fine detail in the twigs and fronds of leaves in the undergrowth. In the first picture I feel almost as though the relationship between the two trees is almost conspiratorial, secretive and as though one tree is whispering to the other, the trees seem to take on a more human form. In the second picture the trees are leaning away from each other, like they have fallen out, it is almost as if the second picture is the conclusion to the first picture when viewed as a pair.
I decided to look at the way that Redon has used shading on more spherical objects, using the patches of light and dark to give weight and imply lightness also:
What I think is amazing about these two pictures is that the subject is the same, the sphere, yet with a difference in shading makes the top one have such a hugely heavy weight like a giant cannonball and the other looks light as a feather, like it is floating. It shows that with the right kind of shading any ‘weight’ of object can be achieved and the shading that he has used in these pictures gives the objects a very 3D appearance. I also really like the delicate use of shading on the lighter areas of the object and the lighter areas on the pictures as a whole. There is no solid ‘line’ around the whole sphere in either picture, all of the shape is implied using shading.
Odilon Redon was greatly inspired by the author/poet Edgar Allen Poe, though he had been dead for 33 years at the time that Redon was involved in making lithographs. Although his picture seem somewhat surreal, they are not classed as such, instead being described as realistic yet macabre and ethereal, Redon described his work in the following way: “I approached the unlikely by means of the unlikely and could give visual logic to the imaginary elements which I perceived.” [more about this can be found here]. Above and below are a couple of his Edgar Allen Poe inspired pieces:
I really like how Redon has implied menace and the macabre through his use of heavy black and minimal light areas picked out of the blackness. Again on first viewing these pictures they have an air of naivete but on looking, and really seeing the mages, there is a certain maturity, a conveying of real emotion which is achieved purely through the sensitive use of one colour.