Redon began his series of flower paintings, both in oil and pastel, after 1900, when he was in his sixties. They provided a respite from the fantastic but often bizarre and troubling visions that had preoccupied him in his paintings, charcoal drawings (which he called his 'noirs') and lithographs. 'The demons have retired', Klaus Berger observed (Odilon Redon, New York, 1965, p. 88). Responding to the decorative theories of the young Nabi artists, and to the widespread research into scientific colour theory initiated by the neo-Impressionists, Redon began to approach his art from a new orientation, in which he concentrated on the purity of its means, sharing the Symbolist view of art for its own sake. Colour became his primary concern, so that subject matter now interested him mainly in terms of the possibilities it offered him for pursuing his new fascination with chromatic experimentation. For these purposes floral subjects were ideal, just as they had been earlier for Henri Fantin-Latour, the best known flower painter of his time.
Redon described flowers as 'those fragile perfumed beings, exquisite prodigies of light' (in A soi-même; trans. M. Jacob and J.L. Wasserman, To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, New York, 1986, p. 114). This subject was well suited to the use of pastel, whose vibrant tints Redon had employed with increasingly frequency since the mid-1890s. In March 1899 he exhibited seven pastels, as well as several of his more familiar 'noirs' and an oil painting, in a group exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel that also featured works by the Nabis and other post-Impressionists. All of the pastels were sold, and their apparent marketability encouraged Redon to experiment further in this medium. By 1904 collectors were avidly acquiring his pastels. More than half of the works he showed at Durand-Ruel in 1906 were flower pastels and paintings, and their success contributed to the highest yearly income he had ever realised from his work.
The present work is a variant of another pastel composition, Bouquet de fleurs des champs dans une vase au long col, which Redon executed after 1912 (Wildenstein, no. 1537; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). It differs from the related pastel mainly in the rendering of additional foxglove, seen at upper right. Berger has placed works of this kind in Redon's third and final stylist phase of flower subjects, which represents a synthesis of the naturalistic observation characteristic of his earliest efforts in this genre, and the tendency towards flattened space and decorative fantasy, strongly influenced by Japanesese prints, seen in the second phase. '...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 colour, as forms, as order, as organisms. In a different way they are just as mysterious as the dramatic charcoal drawings of the past' (K. Berger, ibid., p. 91).
Redon's choice and presentation of the vase or pitcher was as important to his pictorial intentions as the arrangement of the flowers placed within it. Wildenstein documents an extensive inventory of the vessels, both decorated and plain, that Redon employed in his still lifes (op. cit, vol. III, pp. 8-9). The young, Russian-born potter Marie Botkin handcrafted a number of these vases, including the graceful, long-necked piece seen here (fig. 1). She was one of the many talented innovators who contributed to the decorative arts revival in France at the turn of the 20th century. Redon became her close friend and portrayed her several times (W., nos. 80-81).