Musée d'Orsay: Around Redon

Around Redon

Redon at the Abbaye de Fontfroide

Abbaye de Fontfroide© Henri Gaud
It was during the autumn of 1908 that Redon first came across the Abbaye de Fontfroide, situated at the foot of the Corbières hills, around six miles from Narbonne. He had been invited there by the owner, his friend Gustave Fayet (1865-1925), a painter from the south of France who cultivated vineyards and collected works by contemporary artists, especially Gauguin and Odilon Redon.

In 1908, Fayet bought the Cistercian Abbaye de Fontfroide, founded at the end of the 11th century, and abandoned in 1901. Together with his wife Madeleine, he undertook a major restoration and redecoration of the abbey, calling on Redon in 1910 to produce panels for his library, formerly the monks' dormitory.

Colour and Decoration

Redon's art had changed radically since the early 1890s. He had abandoned lithography and the charcoal of his famous Noirs in order to draw in pastel and to paint with vivid colours.

Odilon RedonMarguerites© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
It is hardly surprising that this evolution finally brought him to decorative art, a genre that preoccupied artists throughout the late 19th century. Redon was of the same generation as the Impressionists. In 1876, Monet decorated the château of his friend Ernest Hoschedé, whereas Renoir never stopped thinking "decoration" and "gaiety on bare walls". Redon was, moreover, an admirer of Puvis de Chavannes. He was also very close to the young Nabi painters, who insisted that art should be part of daily life. In this, they subscribed to the theory of the writer and critic Albert Aurier: "there are no paintings, there is only decoration".

It was thanks to an early commission that Redon started to work on large surfaces in 1900-1901, completing around fifteen panels for the château that Baron Robert de Domecy had just had built in the Yonne region. 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."
In 1902, he designed a decoration for the music room of the Paris mansion of composer Ernest Chausson's widow. Then, in 1908, the Gobelins Manufactory commissioned him to do some tapestry cartoons. But the library at Fontfroide would be Redon's great decorative work.

Beneath the vaulted ceiling of Fontfroide

It was during Redon's second stay at the abbey, at Easter in 1910, that he reached an agreement with Fayet to decorate the large, square room, almost ten metres by ten. Two huge panels 6.5 metres wide and 2 metres high, divided into three parts, would face each other on the side walls, with a one metre wide panel placed above the door.

Ricardo ViñesGustave Fayet in the Library at Fontfroide Abbey© Famille Fayet
Redon was given complete freedom to choose the subject. He went back to Paris and began work on the first of the large panels, Day, returning at the end of the summer in 1910 to supervise its installation before starting work, at the abbey, on the second panel, Night. In a letter to Bonger he described the atmosphere in which the works were progressing: "I am writing to you from beneath the vaulted ceiling of the large room that I am decorating in the old cloisters. I have brought my work with me so that I can work in situ. I find this enormously stimulating. […] I have taken a risk with the representation (still not fully defined) of a quadriga driven by one or two winged creatures, sort of flowers, in a mountainous landscape rendered in a range of luminous greys. On the opposite wall is another panel that I have sketched in black, leaving myself the option to indulge shamelessly in every imaginable fantasy. Black on a large surface is wonderful. I realise that I must not take it too far, but you only really know, you only learn while you are actually creating a work. It's the first time that I have agonised over a surface like this […]. I am pursuing this project surrounded by extremely lively, happy guests, in the cheerful, bright Mediterranean sunshine. A beautiful region, not far from the landscapes Cézanne and Van Gogh painted. I see it through different eyes, of course".
When he had finished Day at the abbey, Redon then worked on Night, this time finishing it in Paris, and finally installing it in the autumn of 1911.

Day, Night and Silence

With their contrasting themes and subjects, the two panels can be seen as a synthesis of Redon's art. The dazzling yellow of Day, and the exuberance of the flowers at the sides, are characteristic of Redon's second period, when colour became his passion.

The Library at Fontfroide Abbey - Day© Henri Gaud
The quadriga, a tribute to Delacroix and to his ceiling decoration in the Apollo Gallery of the Louvre, is also a motif that regularly appears in the paintings Redon produced towards the end of his career.

Night, on the other hand, brings back shapes often presented in the Noirs of the 1870s: fallen angel, winged heads, veiled women… But these visions seem more gentle, less disturbing than his earlier creatures. Redon gives the smiling, peaceful faces the features of the owners of Fontfroide and their friends: the two veiled women are Madeleine Fayet and her daughter Simone; in the will o' the wisps flitting around to the right of the tree we can recognise the profiles of Camille Redon, Gustave Fayet and his two sons, Léon and Antoine… Many musicians also figure: composer Déodat de Séverac, pianist Ricardo Viñes and Robert Schumann, reminding us that music had a significant influence on Redon's work. He himself declared: "music is a nocturnal art, the art of the dream". 

The Library at Fontfroide Abbey - Night© Henri Gaud
But whether it is Day or Night, de l'époque des Noirs period or his colour period, there is one constant feature that unites all of Redon's work: the mysterious, oneiric nature of his creations. Here, this atmosphere perfectly reflects the contents of the library at the Abbaye de Fontfroide, which was crammed with books on occultism and esotericism, subjects that fascinated French intellectuals at the end of the 19th century.

As if in a final nod to Redon's obsessions and to the nature of the place, the last panel, which everyone walked under on leaving the library, represents a mysterious, sombre-looking figure, with a golden halo, index finger on its lips. Entitled Silence, this work seems to invite the viewer to be calm and serene as befits a library and an abbey, while still remaining silent on the ambiguous, undefined world of dreams.

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The Decorations of Fontfroide

Odilon RedonDay© Henri Gaud
Odilon RedonNight© Henri Gaud
Odilon RedonSilence© Henri Gaud
Redon (right) in the cloister of Fontfroide Abbey© Famille Fayet

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Redon and the Leblonds: an unexpected relationship

Odilon RedonFantaisie© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Among the many artistic and intellectual gestures of support that Odilon Redon received throughout his career, one unusual story is hidden behind the name "Marius-Ary Leblond" who signed the article "Odilon Redon, the Marvellous in Painting" published in 1907 in the Revue illustrée.
This was the nom de plume of two cousins from the Island of Réunion who moved to Paris in the mid 1890s to launch themselves into the literary world. Georges Athénas (1877-1953) was Marius Leblond, and Aimé Merlo (1880-1958) was Ary Leblond. Together, they had written novels and essays from a colonial point of view (their story En France won the Prix Goncourt in 1909). They launched several art periodicals, held public positions, and most notably helped set up the Musée Léon Dierx in Saint-Denis on Réunion. 

Why Redon?

It is surprising that the Leblonds should have selected Redon as their favourite artist, when their artistic and political inclinations would normally have led them towards a solid naturalism, which, in their view, was the strongest indicator of nationhood. And furthermore, two years after the essay in the Revue illustrée, their book on art criticism, Peintres de race made no mention of Redon, praising the temperament and style of Max Lieberman for Germany, Léon Frédéric for Wallonia, Nicolas Tarkhov for Russia, and Charles Lacoste for France..., with a few spiritual and symbolist detours: Gauguin for the West Indies and Van Gogh for Holland. But what country could Redon represent in their eyes, when he invented new lands with every work?

Odilon RedonStanding Veiled Woman© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / DR

Colour as paradise

It would appear that in fact it was Redon himself who chose the Leblonds and who "suggested" to them that they write "The Marvellous in Painting". In 1907, he had received some recognition but very little mention in written articles. The painter, who for several years had radically redirected his work towards the cult of nature and colour, was looking for new voices to chronicle this evolution.

He wanted to shake off the image of an artist for whom "the supernatural is nature" (Emile Bernard), preferring to be known for his love of "sun, flowers and all the splendours of the external world". This is where the Leblonds came in, finding the words to describe the caesura that Redon had brought to his art: "Redon soon wearied of this sort of black, spiralling hell in which he had shut himself away"; "he felt the need for light, and climbed towards colour as if towards paradise"; or this phrase: "the supernatural side of nature itself" implying that the supernatural came not from Redon but from nature itself.

Linked by their origins

Once again, in order to express these views, the Leblonds had to abandon their strict ideas and accept the "exotic" and "primitive" side of Redon. He explains this apparently unnatural union in a letter to Gabriel Frizeau dated 31 March 1907: "Their Creole upbringing helped them". In fact, while the Leblonds grew up on the island of Réunion, Redon, himself, was born to a father from Bordeaux who left to seek his fortune in Louisiana, and a Creole mother with French ancestry from New Orleans. He was born in France but had been conceived in America, a journey in utero that profoundly affected his imagination. Camille, whom he married in 1880, was also a Creole from Réunion. These are the "elsewheres" they all shared and that certainly enabled Marius and Ary to understand the vital source that Redon claimed to represent, the paradise that he sought and the rebirth that he demanded.

Odilon RedonEve© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

A shared admiration

The relationship that united Redon and the Leblonds was totally sincere and enduring. The painter fully recognised himself in the article and did not fail to express his gratitude, as seen in this letter to Frizeau: "You asked my opinion on the article by the Leblonds. It is well written, almost mystical, Hindu, with an extraordinary richness of meaning. […] As I read it I sensed the joy of being alive. For that is the reward for the effort of having changed and being happy with the change. I will now be able to produce something again, with love and with the clearest image of myself. And these bright young things will help me get there".

The Leblonds regularly published articles on the artist in the periodicals that they published until the mid 20th century. They frequently visited him at his villa in Bièvres, and after his death kept in contact with Camille and Arï, Redon's son. They were also responsible in 1923 for the publication of some of Redon's letters and for the catalogue for the retrospective at the Petit Palais in 1934. And above all, having put their name to "The Marvellous in Painting", they would always be the main witnesses to Redon's explosions of colour, the ones who affirmed the painter's passionate relationship between nature and art.

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A better understanding of Redon. Extracts from writings

Odilon Redon, Artist's Secrets, 1894

I have made an art according to myself. I have done it with eyes open to the marvels of the visible world and whatever anyone says, always careful to obey the laws of nature and life.

Odilon RedonThe Road to Peyrelebade© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Christian Jean
I have done it also with the love for several masters who led me to the worship of beauty. Art is the Supreme Range, high, salutary and sacred; it blossoms; in the dilettante, it produces only delight, but for the artist, with anguish, it provides grains for new seeds. I think I surrendered obediently to the secret laws that led me to form, as best as I could and following my dream, things into which I put my entire being. If this art goes against the art of others (which I don’t believe it does), it has nevertheless brought me an enduring audience and friendships of quality and kindness that are dear to me, and rewarding.
But now in my maturity, I declare, indeed insist, that all my work is limited exclusively to the resources of chiaroscuro. It also owes much to the effects produced by the abstract character of line, that deep source, acting directly on the spirit. Suggestive art can fulfil nothing without going back uniquely to the mysterious play of shadows and the rhythm of imaginatively conceived lines. Ah! Did these ever achieve a higher level than in da Vinci's work! […] And it is also through perfection, excellence, intellect, obedient submission to the laws of nature that this admirable and supreme genius dominates the art of form; he dominates right through to its very essence! [Nature] was, for him and certainly for all the great masters, a necessity and an axiom. What painter could think otherwise?
Odilon RedonThe Sleep of Caliban© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Christian Jean
The credit for giving the illusion of life to the most unreal of my creations can never be taken away from me. My whole originality therefore consists in making the most implausible human beings live human lives according to the laws of the plausible, placing the logic of the visible, insofar as it is possible, at the service of the invisible. […] But on the other hand, my most fertile technique, and the one most necessary to my development, I have often said it, was to copy directly from the real while attentively reproducing objects from nature's most ordinary, most special and most accidental characteristics. 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; it is probable that even with the large proportion of weakness, inequality and imperfection inherent in everything that man recreates, one could not believe the images for an instant (because they are expressive in human terms) if they were not, as I have said, formed, constituted and structured according to the law of life and the moral transference necessary to everything that exists.

Marius-Ary Leblond, Odilon Redon. The Marvellous in Painting, La Revue illustrée, 20 February 1907, n°5

Odilon RedonThe Spider© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
For a long time he was known only for his lithographs, and soon after, famous with blacks of such depth, gravity and smoothness, and dazzling, shimmering whites, one might even say “glowing”. With these he captured, in great scenes, the visions that lit up, like apparitions, the obscure depths of his imagination. Strange beings came up out of them, reared up, rose in sculptural high relief […].
Through this apocalyptic drama, Redon had attracted the admiration of intellectuals from twenty years ago [Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Mallarmé and Huysmans are mentioned]. But Redon soon wearied of this sort of spiralling, black hell in which he had become imprisoned and in which he went round in dantesque circles: he felt the need for light, and climbed towards colour as if towards paradise.
He painted the flower: he discovered it.
Amazed to the point of anxiety by the shades of the flower, astonished to the point of a most naïve adoration of its form, he was soon struck by the revelation that nothing is more mysterious than nature itself, and from that moment he became absorbed in its clarity just as he had plumbed the deep recesses of his imagination. He painted flowers exactly as we know them and just as we see them: geraniums amongst velvety leaves, marguerites, quivering clumps of acacia, orange wallflowers and nasturtiums, and with their slender stems bursting forth, their dazzling corollas fixed, and their sparkling nuances of colour suspended in time, it seemed as if these flowers had just appeared before our very eyes, through a miracle. When we look at them, we too emerge from the shadows.
Odilon RedonUnderwater Vision© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Redon maintains this insatiable dream of myriad forms, in which nature forms her enigmatic whims, through the evocation of an underwater world. It is very characteristic that a great number of his canvases and pastels bring us glimpses of the ocean's depths: this is precisely because the supernatural side of nature – which is simply those things that we do not know of in reality - is hidden away there, in the black night of the deepest ocean like the imagination of the world itself, "shapeless and multi-shaped". […]
Thus, in drawing them up from the shadowy depths of the oceans, Redon reveals the eternal, original depth of colours […] and this is why colours have such a vital, primordial life in Redon's work. When considered in absolute space, shining through the eternal, shadowy night, they appear to him to be magical and magnetic: Mystery's night lights.
Redon is held in very high regard by contemporary painters. An entire school of refined and already recognised talents that have his love for penetrating and unusually sophisticated harmonies, and an intelligent discrimination in pictorial observation, artists like Roussel, Lacoste and Vuillard, revere him as a master. Realist painters of landscapes and still lifes, even the most enthusiastic pupils of Cézanne, admit the masterful, prestigious quality of his drawing, so subtle and so pure, spiritual in the philosophical sense of the word and which, by using light to define contours, ensures the image has both substance and relief.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
 Le Bouddha
 entre 1906 et 1907
 pastel sur papier beige
 H. 90 ; L. 73 cm
 Paris, musée d'Orsay
Odilon RedonThe Buddha© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The originality of his inspiration is its complexity: old lithographs display the profound dreaming of Rembrandt and Goya's power of incarnation; many drawings attest to this love of decorative strangeness in shapes, even in natural shapes, like those first conceived by Albert Dürer; many compositions are illuminated by this expert science of lines that give da Vinci's work its philosophical charm. The work is full of the most fundamental qualities of this European genius. And what is more, his work achieves a synthesis – the hybridisation of this genius of the Western world and that of the East, as Redon's imagination, imprinted with faces and flowers, sculptures and engravings, travels from China to Japan and from Cambodia to India.

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Works in focus

Caliban, charcoal, before 1890
Closed Eyes, oil on cardboard, 1890
The Road to Peyrelebade, oil on paper, undated
Portrait of Arï Redon with Sailor Collar, oil on cardboard, circa 1897
The Sleep of Caliban, oil on wood, between 1895 and 1900
Baroness Robert de Domecy, oil on canvas, 1900
Parsifal, pastel, 1912

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Works by Odilon Redon in the Musée d'Orsay collections

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