Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Property from a Private East Coast Collection
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

La coupe de mystère (ou Sibylle)

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
La coupe de mystère (ou Sibylle)
signed 'ODILON REDON' (lower right)
oil on paper laid down on canvas
22 7/8 x 14¼ in. (58 x 36.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1890
René Philipon, Paris (1896).
Odilon Redon, Paris (acquired from the above).
Jos Hessel, Paris.
Alexander M. Bing, New York (acquired from the above, 1921).
The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (gift from the above, 1953).
Acquired by the present owner, 2002.
A. Wildenstein, Odilon Redon, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint et dessiné, Paris, 1992, vol. I, p. 165, no. 411 (illustrated, p. 164).
(possibly) Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Société de peintres-graveurs français, troisième exposition, April 1891, no. 263.
The Hague, Eerste Internationale Tentoonstelling, May-June 1901, possibly no. 178.
Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Ausstellung Odilon Redon, June-July 1919, no. 228 (possibly titled L'offrande).
Minneapolis, The Walker Art Center, Reality and Fantasy 1900-1954, May-July 1954.
Miami, Lowe Gallery and Palm Beach, The Society of the Four Arts, Odilon Redon, February-April 1955, no. 17.
Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, The Magical World of Redon-Klee-Baziotes, January-February 1957.
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria and Auckland City Art Gallery, The Enchanted Stone, The Graphic Works of Odilon Redon, July-December 1990, no. 48 (illustrated, p. 106 and in color, p. 91).
The Art Institute of Chicago; Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum and London, The Royal Academy of Arts, Odilon Redon, Prince of Dreams, July 1994-May 1995, pp. 205 and 443, no. 103 (illustrated in color, p. 204, fig. 11).
Takasaki, Gunma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art; Yamagata Museum of Art; Tokyo, Odakyu Museum and Hiroshima Museum of Art, Odilon Redon, February-August 2001.
Matsue, Shimane Art Museum, Odilon Redon, Le souci de l'absolu, August-September 2002.

Brought to you by

Stefany Sekara Morris
Stefany Sekara Morris

Lot Essay

Beginning in the mid-1880s, Redon kept account books in which he recorded each work as it left his studio. In 1921 Mme Redon gave these books to André Mellerio, the artist's friend and biographer, and they have since entered the collection of Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the entry for the present painting the artist wrote: "Sorte de femme sphynx de face tenant un vase au contour indeterminé; un segment de cercle dans le haut du ciel" (quoted in The Art Institute of Chicago, exh. cat, op. cit., p. 443). The painting was given the title La coupe de mystère for the 1891 Durand-Ruel exhibition, and subsequent alternative titles have been L'offrande (Winterthur, 1919) and Sybille (Wildenstein, 1994 and 1998). It is clear from the account book description that the artist did not intend to confine the interpretation of this female figure to a particular source from ancient fable, as he does elsewhere in his oeuvre. Indeed, his vagueness on this count contributes to her air of mystery.

In that she is not a combination of human and beast, the female figure is not a sphinx in the usual Egyptian or Greek sense, although she is appropriately in possession of an enigma in the shape of the chalice. Nor is she a Sibyl according to history and practice of the cult in Roman times, although the attribution of prophetic powers to her seems compatible with her portentous aspect. Interpretations based solely on pagan mythology fail to address the obvious Christian symbolism of the chalice. Redon began to employ Christian imagery with increasing frequency during the 1890s. Around this time Redon probably attended a performance of Richard Wagner's Parsifal. Having premiered in Bayreuth in 1882, the year before the composer's death, this opera within a few years become the only one of Wagner's mature music dramas to win favor in France, where listeners were drawn to its austere ceremonial music and the Christian themes of asceticism and redemption. In 1891 Redon executed two lithographs depicting Parsifal holding a lance (Mellerio, no. 116), which in its use of costume and facial expression represents a male and knightly counterpart to La coupe de mystère.

Wagner derived his libretto from the epic romance Parsifal, written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in the early years of the 13th century, in which the hero seeks to behold the Holy Grail, the vessel from which Christ ate during the Last Supper. Imbued with boundless divine grace, the Grail was later taken by Joseph of Arimathea to Arthurian Britain and placed in the care of the Fisher-Kings. In the final chapter of his book Wolfram describes the grail-castle:

The maidens do not keep us waiting--for they come in due order everywhere, to the number of five and twenty. The faces of all those maidens were without exception sweet, charming, winsome. Following them all came the fair Repanse de Schoye, a maiden most rare. By her alone, no other, I am told, did the Grail let itself be carried. Great purity dwelt in her heart. The flesh without was a blossoming of all brightness" (A.T. Hatto, trans., London, 1980, p. 401).

La coupe de mystère very likely refers to the grail legend, and the young woman is shown here in the role of the grail-maiden. The world of medieval Arthurian romance is, as Joseph Campbell and other commentators have demonstrated, a complex synthesis of Christian and pagan mythologies from the world of the Celts, the Gothic tribes of Germany, the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and from as far away as India. In this sphinx-like icon Redon likewise draws upon many sources and traditions to forge his own personal mythology, creating imagery that may be engaged from several vantage points and that offers up multiple layers of meaning.

More from Impressionist & Modern Day Sale

View All
View All