Musée d'Orsay: Drawings by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Drawings by Odilon Redon (1840-1916)


Odilon Redon The Prisoner© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Until the middle of the 1890s, Redon devoted himself primarily to his graphic work, engravings and drawings, and notably to the noirs: unusual and precious charcoal drawings, which he exhibited in Paris for the first time at the beginning of the 1880s.

He explained his discovery of charcoal in a letter published by the magazine L'Art Moderne in June 1894, under the heading "Confidences d'Artiste" (Artist's Secrets). "This everyday substance, which has no beauty of its own, aided my researches into chiaroscuro and the invisible. It is a neglected material, scorned by artists. I must say, however, that charcoal does not allow kindness; it is sober, and only with real emotion can you draw results from it." From the mid 1890s, Redon began using colour and drawing with pastel, which, he wrote, "comforted" him, and he gradually abandoned the noirs.

Odilon RedonSprig of St John's Wort and woman's profile© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Odilon Redon's imagination and his almost fantastical images, in particular those of the noirs, disconcerted many of his contemporaries. However, in the margin of a text by Emile Bernard, which appeared in 1904 in L'Occident, Redon noted indignantly: "I am not a spiritualist, oh no! What are spirits?" or again: "The supernatural is not in my nature".
In his writings, however, the artist constantly refuted a "literary", "illustrative" interpretation of his work, despite his references to Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe.

On the contrary, he insisted on the role of reality and nature in the construction of his imagination – "a constant concern to obey the laws of nature and life" he wrote in Confidence d'Artiste. It is from the natural world – real yet invisible – that his inspiration came, nourished by scientific discoveries of his time, particularly in botany and zoology. But Redon captured the fantastic power of nature, and drew strange forms out of it.
In May 1909, he explained that "after trying to copy minutely a pebble, a blade of grass, a hand, a human profile or any other example of living or inorganic forms, I experience the onset of a mental excitement; at that point I need to create, to give myself over to representations of the imaginary. Thus blended and infused, Nature becomes my source, my yeast, and my leaven. I believe that this is the origin of my true inventions. I believe that this is true of my drawings." Late in his career, Redon continued to draw trees and flowers from life or from botanical plates.


Odilon RedonThe Spider© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
In the 1950s and 1960s, the national museums acquired some of Odilon Redon's charcoal drawings from major collections. This was the case for The Spider, which, in 1952, came from the collection of André Mellerio (1862-1943), author of a catalogue raisonné of the artist's engravings. In 1966 Le Bénitier and Sleep came into the national collections from André Bonger (1861-1934), a great admirer of the artist.

But the Redon collection owes much to the Musée d'Orsay donors: the noirs come mainly from the donation of Claude Roger-Marx, a writer, critic and art historian (1974) and that of his daughter, Ms René Asselain (1978).
The majority of this relatively unknown collection is made up from the studio collection given by the artist's son Arï Redon and his wife in 1984. This more intimate aspect of the work offers a better understanding of its origins and an appreciation of Redon's great originality in French drawing between 1880 and 1900.