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Redon began his series of flower paintings, both in oil and pastel, after 1900, when he was in his sixties (fig. 1). He was inclined to move away from the darkness of the troubling visions that had preoccupied him in his earlier paintings, his charcoal drawings (which he called his "noirs") and lithographs. "The demons have retired," Klaus Berger observed (in Odilon Redon, New York, 1965, p. 88). Responding to the decorative theories of the young Nabi artists--Emile Bernard, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard--and to the widespread research in scientific color theory initiated by the neo-Impressionists, Redon began to approach his art from a new orientation, displaying a fascination in the purity of its means, and sharing the symbolist view of art for its own sake. Color became his chief focus, and he was drawn to new subjects mainly for the possibilities they offered him in pursuing his quest for chromatic expression. Flowers, which Redon regarded as "those fragile perfumed beings, exquisite prodigies of light" (in his To Myself: Notes on Life Art and Artists, New York, 1986, p. 114), were the ideal subject for these new interests.
Armand Clavaud, a botanist and Redon's long-time friend and mentor, encouraged the artist's interest in flowers and natural history. Redon and his wife maintained an extensive garden on the property of their country residence in Bivres from which he drew inspiration. He was drawn to flower subjects also because of their salability--he noted Fantin-Latour's commercial success with this genre, while at the same time he realized that the latter's fame with this subject had the unfortunate effect of eclipsing the painter's forays into other areas where he hoped to establish his enduring reputation. Redon made sure that his floral subjects constituted an aspect of his late oeuvre that was well-integrated within his larger field of interests, and in fact his experimentation in this field served as a bridge between his easel paintings and the large decorations that he painted in his final decade. Berger has pointed out that "The flower-pieces constitute the red thread running through his late art" (op. cit., p. 88).
Redon often chose to render his floral subjects in pastel, whose vibrant tints he had employed with increasing frequency since the mid-1890s. He utilized this inherently iridescent medium in all its potential to create effects in texture and color saturation that ranged from the straightforwardly naturalistic to the imaginary and otherworldly. His increasing use of pastels had caused some of Redon's friends and collectors to worry that the artist would begin neglecting his signature subjects, style and medium--his noirs--with which he had made his reputation among a small but devoted coterie of connoisseurs. However, the artist was confident that his collectors would be receptive to his new color drawings, and in March 1899 he exhibited seven pastels, as well as several of his more familiar charcoal drawings and one oil painting, in a group exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, which also featured works by the Nabis and other post-Impressionists. All of the pastels were sold, encouraging Redon to continue working in this medium. In the 1904 Salon d'Automne he exhibited 60 works, a quarter of which were floral still lifes, and in 1906 at the Galerie Durand-Ruel he included no less than 29 flower pictures in his show of 53 works. Both exhibitions were critically and commercially successful; the income from his pictures in 1906 was the highest Redon had ever realized hitherto.
Berger has classified Redon's chronology of flower pictures into three stylistic phases. In the first, before 1905, Redon depicted flowers and vase in a straightforward manner, using nature as his primary inspiration. These works show a realistic sense of space defined by means of shadows and indications of tabletops. In the second phase, until 1908, the artist moved beyond the naturalism of Fantin-Latour and the shimmering surfaces of Impressionist still life and rendered the flowers in an increasingly decorative and fantasy-like manner, showing the influence of Asian art (fig. 2). Berger wrote that "Japanese coloured woodcuts helped Redon to gain his freedom. The great bunches of wild flowers of these years display simultaneously a degree of symphonic richness and harmonic purity never seen before in his work," (in op. cit. p. 90). The final phase, from 1908 until the artist's death in 1916, displays a synthesis of both these naturalistic and decorative tendencies.
In the present work, created in the final phase of Berger's chronology, Redon depicted a floral arrangement that is surrounded on all sides by a broad expanse of undefined space. Elizabeth Easton has noted that "the choice of poppies, known for their hallucinogenic properties, reinforces the sense that this small, intensely colored bouquet hovers somewhere between this world and that of our imagination" (in E. Braun et al, op. cit., p. 146). The brilliant forms of the flowers appear to emerge and blossom from the ruddy background haze, which Redon created by subtly tinting the original brown tone of the sheet, an overall tonality which sets up the electric contrast with the brilliant viridian hue of the vase. The presence of some shading on each side lends the impression of depth to the background. The arrangement of flowers, set down in a vaguely symmetrical pattern around a central vertical axis, is realized by the addition of warm color accents that do not so much describe the blossoms as they merely suggest their presence, as the poet Stéphane Mallarmé had advocated in his symbolist aesthetic. The crowning touch is barely noticeable at first, but effectively serves to unite subject and ground--there is a faint, iridescent blue halo that seems to rise from the flowers and drift off into space. As Berger has observed, "at this stage he elaborates his compositions out of a coalescence of colour and graphic elements. With the imagination of the artist we see these flowers as if we have never perceived them before, they are here revealed to us in their reality and introduced to us in their essence as colours, as forms, as order, as organisms. In a different way they are just as mysterious as the dramatic charcoal drawings of the past" (in op. cit., p. 91).
There is an illuminating comparison to be made between the late flower paintings of Redon, the symbolist and "the prince of mysterious dreams" (as J.K. Huysmans called him), and the nymphéas paintings of Monet (fig. 3), the surviving master of the great generation of Impressionists. Michael Wilson has written:
"For Redon, as for Monet at Giverny, garden flowers provided the subject for dozens of pictures and it could be argued that in old age, after a lifetime pursuing opposite goals, these artists finally arrived at the same point. Although their luminous colour harmonies describe much more than physical appearances, both Redon and Monet sought to render the sensations they experienced in long and close contemplation of nature. And so we return full circle to Redon's claim that his originality consisted in placing the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible. 'Nature,' he said, 'becomes my source, my catalyst, my ferment'" (in Nature and Imagination: The Work of Odilon Redon, London, 1978, pp.76 and 78).
(fig. 1) Redon in his apartment at 129, avenue de Wagram, Paris, after 1905. BARCODE 25995084
(fig. 2) Odilon Redon, Vase au guerrier japonais, 1905. Sold, Christies, New York, 4 May 2004, lot 8.BARCODE 23023260
(fig. 3) Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1907. Sold, Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, lot 22.BARCODE 21615689