With his penchant for disembodied heads, winged centaurs and other bizarre imagery, Odilon Redon is often misunderstood. While he has been lumped with the Symbolists, such as Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and with the various occult movements that were rife in late 19th-century Paris, the artist disliked being labeled, whether by critics or fellow artists. Redon's paintings, drawings and prints still resist easy categorization today.
Although his audience is smaller than that of contemporaries such as Claude Monet or Paul Gauguin, interest in Redon's work has remained steady, and rises when great works appear at auction. "He doesn't necessarily come to mind when one thinks of major movements, which has contributed to the fact that more people aren't looking at Redon when he's such a great artist," says David Norman, co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's.
"Redon stands apart from most of his contemporaries," says Joseph Baillio, vice president of Wildenstein & Company in New York. "And there is a psychological depth to his art and a poetry that is not found in the works of most French Symbolists."
Born in Bordeaux in 1840 to an aristocratic family, Redon had no formal art training. In the 1860s, he began an apprenticeship with Rodolphe Bresdin, a printer who taught him the techniques of charcoal and lithography. Redon was also strongly influenced by Rembrandt and Eugène Delacroix in his dramatic use of chiaroscuro and mythological themes.
In the 1870s, Redon concentrated on charcoal drawing, and his works in that medium are known as the noirs, not only because of their predominant black tone but also their dark mood. He had suffered from epilepsy as a youth, and his family, ashamed of the affliction, sent him away at an early age to live with an uncle. That separation haunted Redon, and was embodied in his noirs. He referred to the drawings as mes ombres ("my shadows," or "my ghosts") because of their highly personal nature and otherworldly subjects.
Redon was bent on rejecting the realism that dominated the art of the 1860s and '70s, and his noirs were filled with images that corresponded to nothing in naturea new, dreamlike visual poetry of ghoulish floating heads, lone maidens and creatures from Greek mythology. Many of these motifs reflected his interest in psychology and the unconscious mind, and were inspired by the writings of Symbolists such as his friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
"I prefer the noirsthey are Redon's most important works," says Anisabelle Berès of Galerie Berès in Paris. "For me, he is much more of a draftsman than a painter."
However, perhaps because of the dark character of the drawings, only a select group of collectors are interested in them. "With the noirs, you are looking at a fairly narrow market, but an extremely passionate one," says Christopher Eykyn, head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's. "Great noirs will absolutely make a very strong price." The record for one of these drawingswhich rarely appear for salewas set at Sotheby's New York in November 1987, when La gloire, from 1890, sold for $418,000. In November 2002 at Christie's New York, Centaure lisant brought $196,500.
But in Redon's own time, the noirs were largely ignored. The artist took the advice of colleagues, including Gauguin, and around 1890 began lightening his palette and focusing on pastels. Collectors and dealers immediately took to his rich, new colors, and in 1894, at the age of 54, Redon had his first major solo exhibition, at the famed Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris. There, his floral still lifes stole the spotlight, and to this day have remained his most sought-after pieces at auction.
"They appeal to certain collectors because they are very vibrant, decorative images," says Eykyn. "There's still very much a Symbolist element and an ethereal quality to the execution and composition." Christie's New York scored Redon's auction record in May 2004, when the circa 1905 pastel-and-pencil still life Vase au guerrier japonais, from the Doris Duke collection, sold for an astounding $3.8 million. The drawing, characteristic of Redon's works from this period, depicts a part fantastical, part-realistic floral arrangement set on a flattened background reminiscent of Japanese prints.
With most artists, paintings sell for much more than even the best drawings, but with Redon the reverse has been true. A day after the Duke sale, on May 5, his still-life painting Fleurs dans un vase vert, from 1910, brought $1.7 million at Sotheby's John Hay Whitney sale in New York, setting the record for a canvas by the artist.
Norman says, "Redon was very prolific, inventive and distinctive in pastel. Only Degas, whose works in that medium frequently make more than his oils, would be comparable." It will be worth watching, then, how well Redon's circa 1900 painting, Vase de fleurs sur une nappe rouge (est. $600800,000), from the Laurance Rockefeller collection, fares at Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art sale in New York on Nov. 2.
In the 1890s, while his still lifes were all the rage, Redon became friendly with the younger artists of the Nabi movement, including Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. Soon he adopted their interest in the decorative arts revival going on at the time and began creating panels marrying strong color with his familiar dreamlike imagery. At Sotheby's New York in November 1998, Le monde des chimères, a large, circa 190304 panel, sold as part of the Reader's Digest collection for a record $1.3 million.
Redon worked almost exclusively in vibrant colors, whether in still lifes, portraits or panels, until his death in 1916. "There are buyers who have entered the market in the past five years who are responding to works with a lot of wall power," says Norman. "They are very attracted to Redon works with extremely intensive color." According to Wildenstein's Baillio, a major large painting, pastel, decorative panel or screen could command from $1.5 million to $5 million privately.
In general, the trophies of Redon's oeuvre rarely surface for sale, since most of them are in private and public collections. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has the largest selection of the artist's work outside France, including part of the Ian Woodner Family collection, which it acquired in 2000. From Oct. 30 through Jan. 23, the museum is showing around 100 works by Redon from the 1885 noir print series, "Homage toGoya," to The Chariot of Apollo, an oil from 1912. The exhibition will give visitors an unusual opportunity to appreciate the artist's range. Redon's more colorful works appeal to those looking for maximum decorative impact, but in general, this individualistic artist remains a connoisseur's taste. His darker, more visionary pictures resonate with those who are willingat least temporarilyto dream along with him.