Visual arts

Exploring Odilon Redon’s Otherworldly Symbolist Art

Late 19th century France was an exciting time for avant-garde artists. While the best-known figures of this period can be grouped into the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art movements, there are other creators from this era who possessed unique and enduring aesthetics. One of these people was the French artist Odilon Redon.

Interested in depicting imaginary subjects in a semi-realistic manner, he is often associated with the Symbolist art movement – ​​the style was prevalent in France at the time. Redon’s diligent use of color, dreamlike settings and abstraction set him apart from many of his contemporaries. And while not as well known as Monet or Van Gogh, he had a lasting impact on future art movements.

Here we will learn more about Redon and the characteristics of his dream art.

Who was Odilon Redon?

Photo Portrait of Odilon Redon

Photograph of Odilon Redon by Guy and Mockel, c. 1880 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was an influential French artist known for his imaginative artistry in pastel, lithography and oil.

Born in Bordeaux, France, into a wealthy family, he showed an aptitude for drawing from an early age. Redon’s father wanted him to pursue architecture, but after failing the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts, he began training as an artist. Due to the Franco-Prussian War, Redon’s career did not blossom until the late 1800s, when he began producing works in pastel and oil.

Ophelia by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, “Ophelia”, 1900-1905 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Although contemporary with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, he rejected both movements. And if Redon exhibited with the group Les Nabis in 1899 and shared common interests with them, he was not part of their style either. His work is associated with the Symbolist movement, which is characterized by an interest in imbuing art with ambiguous metaphors and themes of romance, morbidity and the occult.

Butterflies by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, “Butterflies”, c. 1910 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Characteristics of the art of Odilon Redon

imaginative subject

The Cyclops by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, “The Cyclops”, c. 1914 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Perhaps the most remarkable of Redon’s works is his imaginative subject. Instead of being inspired by what he saw, Redon preferred to paint images of his dreams, nightmares and stories from mythology. This resulted in drawings and paintings with a tenuous understanding of realism and a strong emphasis on emotion, color and atmosphere.

Redon explains his approach in his diary: “I have often, as an exercise and as nourishment, painted in front of an object down to the slightest accidents of its visual aspect; but the day left me sad and with an unquenched thirst. The next day, I let flow the other source, that of the imagination, through the memory of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased.

Vibrant color palette

Odilon Redon Art

Odilon Redon, “Reflection”, c. 1900–1905 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Redon used a single color palette in his art. The unusual combination of faded pastel tones and acrid hues led to compositions that were overall very vibrant to the eye. Additionally, her color choices were generally not intended to be naturalistic choices and actually enhanced the otherworldly look of her unusual pieces.


Flowers by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, “Flowers”, 1909 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As for recurring patterns, flowers were among his most popular. Not only did he create many still lifes of flower arrangements, but he also incorporated flowers into his pastel drawings, prints and paintings as decorative motifs to enhance the image.


buddha painting

Odilon Redon, “The Buddha”, c. 1906-1907 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Like many artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Redon was deeply inspired by Japanese art in a phenomenon called Japonism. The influence can be seen in references to Buddhism, as well as some of the natural motifs, such as trees and plants which recall the scene of forms in ukiyo eWhere Japanese woodblock prints.


Portrait of Violette Heymann by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, “Portrait of Violette Heymann”, 1910 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Although not as well known as some of his contemporaries, Redon was an important figure in the history of art. During his lifetime, his unusual use of color was praised by the French artist Henri Matisse. Redon also had an important influence on later artistic styles, particularly Dadaism and Surrealism, whose participants were drawn to his naturalistic depictions of the imaginary.

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