Self-portrait. Odilon Redon. 1880. Musée D'Orsay, Paris.
The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English lawyer and philosopher
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was one of the outstanding artists of the Symbolism movement. Symbolism was a multi-disciplinary arts movement, most active in the late nineteenth century, which rejected naturalism and realism in favor of spirituality, the imagination and dreams. Explaining his creative process in his journal A Soi-même (To Myself), Redon states:
I have often, as an exercise and as sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with an insatiate 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.
In the first half of his artistic life, Redon was haunted by his personal ghosts, a world of darkness and death. Motifs during this period included floating eyes, decapitated heads and shackled angels. Navigating through a period of personal crisis between 1886 and 1895, Redon's art moved from a darkly-themed world of charcoals and lithographs to a mysterious world of brilliantly hued pastels and oils. In this next half of his artistic life, he still explored his extraordinary visions but his attitude toward them had radically changed. His previously morose view of life, anchored in some way perhaps to his solitary childhood, transformed into a more joyful one and this happier maturity translated on to the canvas.
The maturing of artistic work often falls within the thematic parameters of alterswerk. Alterswerk, literally latter works, refers to the final output of an artist just prior to their death. The three characteristics of alterswerk -- interest in death, recapitulation, and prophetic visions -- not only occur toward the end of an oeuvre but they also accompany the final psychological stages of life. The artworks by Redon which fall after 1905 best fit this category of alterswerk. During this period his use of color reached its zenith as he repeatedly explored spiritual motifs, such as the Buddha, Apollo's Chariot, and the death of Ophelia -- as well as a series of butterflies, flowers and boats.
In the last three years of Redon's life there were several significant events. To begin with, there was the Armory Show of 1913 which introduced American art patrons to Redon. He was not only the most represented artist in the exhibition but one of the most financially and critically successful as well. That same year, André Mellerio published a catalogue of his lithographs. This recognition late in his life continued in 1915 with two more major exhibitions: one at the John Herron Art Institute of Indianapolis and the Second Exhibition of Contemporary French Art at the Caroll Gallery of New York.
In his personal life the most significant event was his son Ari's mobilization for war (1914). This development was the inspiration for Redon's painting The cyclops.
Redon remained a quiet and intensely private artist to the end of his life. He died in Paris on July 6, 1916. The virgin, his final oil on canvas, was left unfinished.