"Black should be respected. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and does not awaken sensuality. It is the agent of the spirit much more than the splendid color of the palette or of the prism" (Odilon Redon, A soi-même--To Myself: Notes on Life, Art, and Artists, trans. M. Jacob and J. Wasserman, New York, 1986, p. 103).
Redon referred to his drawings done in the smoky and velvety black tones of charcoal, chalk and Conté crayon as his noirs. Jodi Hauptmann has noted, "Redon took up lithography and charcoal drawing in the context of a developing interest at the time in the graphic arts, but in his noirs he pushed the use of black further than his contemporaries, stretching color (or noncolor) to their very limits" (Beyond the Visible, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2005, pp. 28-29). "Charcoal, that light material that a breath could take away, allowed me the rapidity of gestation amenable to the docile and easy expression of feeling" (M. Jacob and J.L. Wasserman, op. cit., p. 115). Redon achieved great success with these drawings and his lithographs printed in black--he built his reputation on them, to the extent that he initially feared his collectors would be unreceptive to the pastels and paintings in color he began to make during the 1890s and thereafter dominated his production. The subject matter in his noirs is sui generis and wholly original. The artist wrote, circa 1894:
"There is a certain style of drawing that the imagination has liberated from the embarrassing concern for real details in order that it might freely serve only as the representation of conceived things. One cannot take from me the credit for giving the illusion of life to my most unreal creations. All my originality then, consists in giving human life to unlikely creatures according to the laws of probability, while, as much as possible, putting the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible" (ibid., p. 23).
J.-K.Huysmans wrote of Redon's first exhibition of drawings in 1881: "Here is the nightmare transported into art. Plunged into a macabre milieu, imagine somnambulist figures, twisted with fear and perhaps you will have an idea of the bizarre talent of this singular artist" (quoted in S. F. Eisenman, The Temptation of Saint Redon, Chicago, 1992, p.102). In L'Apparition, a gaunt young woman, nude, glimpses in the dark a mask-like face, a portent perhaps, which displays an expectant and questioning gaze. "My drawings inspire and do not define themselves. They determine nothing. They place us as music does in the ambiguous world of the indeterminate" (M. Jacob and J.L. Wasserman op. cit., p. 22).
Some of the imagery in Redon's art reflects the magical and ghoulish elements that permeate the old folk tales of Médoc, the region where his family owned a country estate and he spent his youth. The grotesque aspect in his work, the bizarre characterizations, he derived in part from the art of political caricature, which continued to thrive in the period after Daumier. His literary preferences ran to the progenitors and practitioners of symbolism: Poe, comte de Lautréamont, Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire, Flaubert and Mallarmé. The clarity of Dürer's line, together with Rembrandt's dramatic and moody use of light and shadow, were major influences on Redon's drawing.
"It is nature who orders us to obey the gifts she has given us. Mine have led me to dreams; I submit to the torments of imagination and the surprises she gave me under my pencil; but I directed and led those surprises in accordance with the laws of the organism of art which I know, which I feel, with the single goal of producing in the spectator, of sudden attraction, the whole evocation, and the whole enticement of the uncertain within the confines of thought" (ibid., pp. 21-22).
Ambroise Vollard was the first dealer to regularly purchase and show Redon's drawings, pastels and lithographs, and help bring them to wider notice--between 1894 and 1909 he acquired more than one hundred works from the artist. Vollard's support was crucial when Redon faced difficulties in settling his family's estate, and the dealer helped free the artist from financial needs when he began working in color late in his career.