Research Point – Odilion Redon


Odilion Redon; born April 20, 1840, Bordeaux, France—died July 6, 1916, Paris(1)

“I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an unsatiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased.” (2)

A brief history on Redon:

  • He worked in charcoal and lithograph for a large section of his career, particularly in the first half of it.
  • He focused on noir and the depths of black first and then went on to explore the depths of colour.
  • His work is laced with symbolism –(symbolism is a rejection of naturalistic art and an emphasis on the reality of imagination(6))
  • His most famous work relates to monsters from his imagination

Looking at the vast amount of work created by Redon, and reading his quote at the top of the website, gave me a lovely sense of calm about working in charcoal.  The beautiful manner in which he explores the depth of black and how he manages through charcoal to make the images to appear diffused and soft yet creepy and quite dark is inspiring.

It captures the realm of charcoal in a way I hadn’t experienced before and the light lines coupled with the black hole depth of parts of his work, is astonishing.  The layers that must have been applied to get to that depth are amazing and the contrasts are clear still.  There is no muddy quality to the whites and paler sections.  Instead they serve to provide a balance to the image.


This smiling spider(3) is particularly fantastic.  The spider completely dominates the top left of the image and hangs precariously from it.  The dark corner in which it hides has a great quality of shadow that appears to be a series of lines and marks simply softened lightly.  The edges of the page are hugged by the legs of the spider as if they were the edges of the corner in which he hides.

But the spider isn’t passive in this image.  He sits, and waits and the smile that is emerging from his face is quite humanlike and suggests something menacing.

She knows something that we don’t and can see something we can’t.  Are we in the web?  Are we observing or participating?  Do we really know what is going on here?

The opposites in light and dark from left to right corners are amazing.  The eye is drawn straight into the centre but the framing of the piece by the legs forces you to go down and observe the empty space that seems to be waiting for something to appear in it.

I love the weight of the spider in the image, the manner in which it completely occupies the space, the thin sharp spindly legs contrast against the soft fuzzy body of the smiling assassin.

It holds together so much and represents a lot more than a spider.  This image is from a lithograph he created having done a charcoal sketch.  It mentioned on the website that the tiled floor gives the real world placement and 3D form so we are anchored in a place familiar to us.  I feel like it represents more than that, as the proportions seem a little off and we’ve been invited into an extreme close up.  As mentioned you have to question if the smiling spider is the last thing you see before you’re eaten.


Redon suffered from epilepsy and was drawn to the shadows and murky side during his childhood.  He originally went to study as an architect but failed his entrance exam and so went into the world of art.  He had agreed to study architect to please his family but his interests lay in art.


His early work is distinctly dark and full of odd imagery and symbolism and what he called ‘monsters’.  However, he starts to move towards lighter colours in the later part of his career  He was interested in science and during his studies in art, his friend, Armand Clavaud (a botanist) introduced him to the writings of Charles Darwin.  The mutated forms in his charcoal drawings and noir body of work are influenced by the publishing of Darwin’s ‘Origins of life’.   He also developed an interest in spiritualism around the same time.  The concept of mutated forms is also expressed through eyeballs and floating heads with winged parts.

The emergence of Astrophysics as a field of study in the 1860s also gave rise to new inspiration in the field of art(5).  The discovery of stars is well expressed in the lithograph of ‘Germination’, giving the impression that we are all made of stars and the seeds of our future in are in them.

His career in art was put on hold while he was in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the effects left him with post traumatic stress(4).  Through his art it would appear that he worked out his dark thoughts and visions as a means of healing the trauma as the return from the war led him to begin work on his ‘noirs’, monochromatic charcoal drawings.  He was introduced to the transfer method by lithography by Henri Fantin-Latour in 1872 and used it to reproduce large quantities of his work as a way to make money.


It wasn’t until the 1890s that Redon began to work in colour.  Various experts attribute it to a religious awakening, but perhaps it was art acting as his therapist and his life was providing him with a pleasure and happiness he hadn’t experienced before.  The use of colour would reflect his feelings.


What is evident is that his passion never faltered and he was the eternal student in being willing to explore new ways of art and new styles.  He moved into portraits and developed styles in Japonism.  He created a huge body of work in his lifetime and was awarded a Legion of Honour by his country in 1903.  He died in 1916 and some say his anxiety for his son serving in WW1 was a factor in his death.


All images of Odilon Redons works were sourced via Google libraries


  1. 46 31.01.18
  2. 05 04.02.18
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  5. 51 04.02.18
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