Intimately associated with the Symbolist movement in literature and the visual arts, a friend of J.K. Huysmans and Stéphane Mallarmé, Odilon Redon was the mentor for an entire generation of early modernist painters, including Maurice Denis, Emile Bernard, and Paul Gauguin. The poet and art critic Albert Aurier acknowledged Redon's importance for the new idealist art movement, locating the artist among "the bearers of the glad tidings which the young like to evoke" and underscoring his precursory role in the development of the Symbolist aesthetic (A. Aurier, "Les Symbolistes," Revue Encyclopédique, Paris, 1892; quoted in J. Rewald, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin, New York, 1961, p. 36).
"The work of art is born from three sources, three causes," Redon wrote in his journal in 1887:
Tradition, which springs from the primordial fountainhead and constant additions made by men of genius, who ceaselessly hand down to us the moral and intellectual life of the whole of Humanity...
Reality, or in other words Nature, which is a pure means for the expression of our feelings and their communication to our fellow men; without nature our own will to create remains a mere dream, an abstraction, a simple vibration of life devoid of the perfect organ that will enable it to appear, forcefully, fully, in all the clarity and purety of its supreme expression.
Finally our own personal invention, the original intuition that combines and summarizes everything, seeking support in the past and in the present in order to give to the contemporary work a new organization, a temperament that is ceaselessy rejuvenated in the continuous development of human life, which incontestably progresses and unceasingly modifies the means of expression in art. (O. Redon, "À Soi-Même: notes sur la vie, l'art et les artistes"; quoted in K. Berger, Odilon Redon: Fantasy and Colour, New York, no date, p. 124)
This credo was to remain a founding principle of Redon's approach to painting and drawing throughout his long career, informing his celebrated noirs as much as his late flower paintings. While some critics viewed Redon's flower pieces as a sign that the artist had finally returned to nature for inspiration after years of exploring the inner depths of the imagination, others recognized the consistent element of fantasy in his work. As one critic reviewing Redon's work at the 1905 Salon d'Automne asserted, "M. Odilon Redon is a painter of flowers as they are seen in dreams. They do not flourish under the gardener's hose, under the rays of the sun. Their middays are moonlight, and water from unhallowed springs has given them the strength to live. They come from our nightmares...from oriental legends" (A. Flament, La Presse, 1905; quoted in M. Stevens, "Redon's Artistic and Critical Position," in Redon: Prince of Dreams, 1840-1916, New York, 1994, p. 297).
Confronted by the quiet poetry of Redon's flower paintings and the vivid colors of his palette, critics frequently employed musical analogies to describe their impressions. With a direct source in Baudelaire's theory of corréspondances among the different arts, a critical vocabulary describing the strident rhythms and "harmonious chaos" of Redon's still-lifes became a topos in the literature. Louis Vauxcelles was, however, far less lyrical, flatly characterizing Redon's entries to the 1906 Salon d'Automne as "humble bouquets of field flowers: geraniums, poppies and daisies, jonquils, morning glories and heather, arranged in red or black stoneware vases" (L. Vauxcelles, Le Gil Glas, 1906; quoted in G. Groom, "The Late Work," in ibid., p. 324) Once again, opinion was divided concerning the degree of fantasy and naturalism in Redon's approach to painting.
Vauxcelles may not have paid much attention to the vases in Redon's flower pictures, but they were of considerable importance to the artist. Many of the ceramic, stoneware vases were produced by a friend, the Russian-born potter Marie Botkin. As Gloria Groom observes:
Redon's interest in handcrafted vases indicates his awareness of the decorative-arts revival. Ceramics, stoneware, and glassware received special status at the Salon du Champ de Mars... The explosion of new techniques and materials and the attention focused on the applied arts at the Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900, as well as in such lavishly illustrated magazines as Art et décoration and L'Art décoratif, encouraged a revolution among decorative artists not dissimilar to the movement in the pictorial arts calling for renewed sensitivity to materials, independence from literary ideas, and a return to nature, "the inexhaustable fountain of beauty and invention." (Ibid, pp. 321-322)
In Redon's handling, the earthy sobriety of the ceramic vases exists in a delicate counterpoint to the explosion of color in the brilliant flowers they contain.
Redon's flower paintings, of course, are all about color. After years of working in charcoal and other black and white media, Redon turned increasingly to color in the 1890s, developing new and unorthodox techniques in pastel and oil. Pastel itself had experienced a considerable revival in the hands of Jean François Millet and Edgar Degas, and the latter's constant experimentation with the medium was a source of inspiration for Redon. Redon often combined different techniques, using a fully developed noir, for example, as the ground for a pastel, as Degas did with monotypes. This experience in turn had a profound impact on Redon's work in oil, to which he increasingly dedicated himself after 1900. He made extensive use of gouache and distemper in his painting to arrive at a consistency of color and texture that was comparable to the matte surfaces of his pastels. He also experimented with different applications of oil and glue-based media in a single work, building up certain portions of the canvas with thick layers of paint, while diluting his paints elsewhere and allowing the ground of the canvas to absorb the pigment.