Around the turn of the 20th century, Odilon Redon altered the focus in his work--turning from from the tenebrous fantasies he depicted in his black lithographs and charcoal drawings (which he called his "noirs"), he instead took up painting in oils and watercolor, and drawing in pastels, in which he employed increasingly brilliant and non-naturalistic color. Redon introduced floral subjects into his work, partly out of admiration for the recently exhibited still-lives of Cézanne and van Gogh, but he also realized that the growing popularity of this genre among collectors might help him to expand his normally small clientele. His new interest in color went hand in hand with the increasing appearance of floral subjects in his work. Indeed, the pure and varied colors of flowers provided the ideal inspiration for his chromatic experimentation.
Floral subjects were especially well suited to the vibrant tints of pastel, and in Redon's hands this medium seemed to take on a life all its own, as the artist created the most dazzling and evanescent effects. His subjects were often ordinary seed and field varieties of flowers, which he liked to cut himself from a garden he and his wife tended on their property in Bièvres. Redon progressed from a relatively straightforward and natural depiction toward a vision of his subjects that was more decorative in conception and suffused with fantasy. At first, he placed his flower arrangements in real space, suggesting the firm presence of the tabletop beneath the vase. As time went on, Redon dispensed with the illusion of tangible space altogether. The present work was created relatively early on in this series, although it clearly incorporates decorative aspects as well. The tabletop is indicated, and the shading in the vase adds to the illusion of modeled form; elsewhere, however, the still-life appears to dissolve into the iridescent air of an imaginary dimension. In a text written in May 1887, Redon stated that his art must be derived, "From reality, or in other words nature, which is a pure means for expressing our feelings and communicating them to others, out of which our ambition to create remains in a dream state, a state of abstraction," (in Redon's To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, New York, 1986, p. 153).
André Masson, an avid user of pastel in his own surrealist works, admired Redon's flower pastels for their ability to demonstrate "the endless possibilities of lyrical chromatics." Redon had reinvented "color as metamorphosis," Masson stated, and "made a collection of bits of rainbows, dust from stars and suns. He memorized the growth of plants, the way a petal falls, the sleep of the chrysalis. But he used his 'botanist's arsenal' to disclose mutations which he discovered in a light of fear and wonderment. Even his most reassuring bouquets suddenly tear through their apparent repose, become astral vertigo, spurt and decline--a mystery" (quoted in J. Hauptman, Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005, p. 43).
Andries Bonger (1861-1936), Redon's Dutch friend and patron, was the first owner of the present pastel. In 1881, Bonger met Théo van Gogh, an art dealer in Paris and the younger brother of the painter Vincent. Théo married Bonger's sister Johanna ("Jo") in 1889. Having established himself as an insurance agent in Amsterdam, Bonger began to collect art in the early 1890s. He occasionally purchased a "noir" drawing from Redon, but he responded even more enthusiastically to the artist's newer works in color, and by 1903 he had become Redon's leading collector. He also acquired major paintings by van Gogh and Cézanne. Bonger's Redon holdings included large decorative panels and screens, one of which he commissioned from the artist, as well as oil paintings, many pastels and drawings. Writing in the mid-1960s, Berger noted that "his Redon collection is still unsurpassed. Other collectors followed his example, even if hesitantly. In no other country did Redon have so many admirers at the end of his life as in Holland" (op. cit., p. 103).