The two Redon charcoal drawings -- or noirs, as the artist called them -- offered in these sessions are both from the same private collection (see Le Cauchemar; Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale, 23 June 2009). The present L'homme aux lauriers is the later work, and was probably executed a decade or more after Le Cauchemar, which was exhibited in 1882. L'homme aux lauriers is an exquisitely subtle and enigmatic drawing incorporating twin themes that Redon touched on frequently during the 1890s, and then well past the turn of the century: a serene visage with lowered or closed eyes, a mysterious figure who appears committed to a vow of silence. These complementary ideas describe a state of rapt, mystical inwardness as the subject engages in quiescent meditation. Two related paintings are among Redon's best-known works -- Les yeux clos, 1890 (Wildenstein, no. 469; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Le Silence, 1910-1911 (Wildenstein, no. 414; fig. 1).
In its imagery and mood, L'homme aux lauriers is a marked departure from the macabre and tormented vision in Le Cauchemar and other noirs. Here the soul appears to have arrived at a fragile equilibrium in its contemplation of the world, which is all the more striking given the age of Redon's subject, an androgynous youth who is still wearing his long childhood locks in the lingering fashion of the day. One may presume that youthful innocence, or the return to it, is a prerequisite for this transcendent state of inner peace. The presence of this spiritualized personage, the tacit possession of a secret, ineffable knowledge, the apparent reticence on the part of the artist to speak and reveal anything at all, are the conception of a heightened and often ambiguous subjectivity that Redon shared with his friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and his Symbolist circle.
L'homme aux lauriers moreover manifests a noticeably different pictorial aspect than that seen in Le Cauchemar; this stems from Redon's full immersion in the evolving modernist aesthetic of the 1890s, most importantly his engagement with the young Nabi painters, including Bonnard and Vuillard, who idolized him. The Nabis took their cue from Gauguin, as well as the Japanese printmakers and screen painters, and made the inherent flatness of the picture plane the starting point for their ideas about composition and decoration. In the present drawing everything is flat; there is minimal illusion of depth. Redon has drawn a picture within a picture; the visage of the young man is an image twice-removed.
This pictorial device reinforces the idea that this delicate state of mind is only possible in a mental space that is set apart from the physical world; the frame sets off, confines, focuses and protects this young acolyte. Redon then draws attention to an implausible visual conceit that Magritte might have smiled at -- he extended the branch of laurel leaves from within the framed image to the wall beyond (or vice-versa), which tenuously connects the realm of the spirit to the outer world. In Christian lore, the evergreen laurel symbolizes both chasteness and eternity, and here it takes the place of the upraised fingers in the painting Le Silence (in which the subject is clearly a Christ-like figure) to gently guide and encourage this inner quest for enlightenment.
Baron Roger de Domecy, the initial owner of L'homme aux lauriers, purchased his first drawing from Redon in 1893, and became the artist's most dedicated collector of the noirs. In 1900 Domecy commissioned a series of fifteen decorative panels from Redon for his chateau in Burgundy (Wildenstein, nos. 2536-2550; Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
(fig. 1) Odilon Redon, Le Silence, 1910-1911. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.