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Redon began his series of flower paintings, both in oil and pastel, after 1900, when he was in his sixties. He was inclined to move away from the darkness of the troubling visions that had preoccupied him in his earlier paintings, noir drawings 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 subject matter now interested him mainly in terms of the possibilities it offered him for pursuing his new interest in 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 (fig. 1).
The evanescent delicacy of his floral subjects, these "admirable prodigies of light," as Redon called them (quoted in M. Wilson, Nature and Imagination: The Work of Odilon Redon, London, 1978, p. 76), was well suited to the use of pastel, whose vibrant tints Redon had employed with increasing frequency since the mid-1890s. Some of the artist's friends and collectors, who esteemed the smoky chiaroscuro and imaginary subjects of the charcoal noirs (fig. 2), were concerned that Redon would now neglect his signature subjects, style and medium. By this time, Redon had attracted an extensive and devoted clientele for his charcoal drawings and usually kept a waiting list of those who wanted to acquire his most recent works.
The artist was confident, however, that his collectors would be receptive to his new drawings in color. In March 1899, he exhibited seven pastels, as well as several of his more familiar charcoal drawings 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. In the 1904 Salon d'Automne, Redon exhibited 60 works, a quarter of which were floral still lifes. His friend and collector Arthur Fontaine wrote that the public was "snatching up [his] pastels" (quoted in D. Druick et al, op. cit. p. 324). Unconcerned that he might be perceived as only a painter of flowers, a reputation that had hindered acceptance of Fantin's efforts in other genres, Redon included no less than 29 flower pictures in his show of 53 works at Durand-Ruel in 1906. The exhibition was a critical success, and the demand for his flower pastels continued to grow apace, so that the income from his pictures that year was the highest he had ever realized hitherto.
The present pastel dates from around this time. Following an initial phase in which he depicted his floral subjects in a relatively straightforward manner, Redon quickly moved beyond the naturalism of Fantin and the shimmering surfaces of Impressionist still life painting and embarked upon what Klaus Berger has identified as a second, more imaginary stage in the stylistic evolution in the artist's late still life subjects:
"Carrying on the style of the late lithographs and charcoal drawings, there is no longer any movement back into depth here, space has been reduced to a flat surface. Choice flowers of fantasy that no gardener ever saw, abstract forms, underwater landscapes are combined with the ordinary flora into a fabric in which sharply outlined cloisonné shapes, structured stalks and the like determine the arrangement. The vases seem to be floating, the central axis is frequently abandoned, the shadows disappear, the juxtaposition of moist, opalescent patches of colour, all this suggests a fresh wave of Eastern Asian influence. 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" (K. Berger, op. cit., p. 90).
In these works, Redon no longer depicts the flowers he has selected and arranged; he suggests them, heeding the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé's warning the that naming object undermines most of the viewer's pleasure in it. The writer Tristan Klingsor described Redon's new, allusive method: "In portraying a flower he is not content with a vague patch (tache), he desires a highly significant contour. More than this, with the rubbing of the pastel he often mingles a decisive stroke, in order to mark out the form. A charming game in which the imprecise is associated with the precise. No other artist has presented us with such striking examples of this" (quoted in ibid.).
The influence of Japanese art is apparent in this pastel, both stylistically and in the artist's choice of a vase as well. Redon was as sensitive to the compositional potential in the presentation of the vase or pitcher as he was to the arrangement of flowers placed within it. Wildenstein documents an extensive inventory of such vessels, both decorated and plain, that Redon employed in his still-lifes (op. cit, p. 8). Many of the vases were produced by Redon's friend, the Russian-born potter Marie Botkin, one of many talented if little-known craftsmen who contributed to late 19th century decorative arts revival in France. Other vases were imported wares, mainly from China, with delicate floral patterns and lacing arabesques. In the present pastel, and in a second work and an oil painting of this period (Wildenstein 1523 and 1525), Redon employed a contemporary Japanese stoneware vase (figs. 3 and 4) with a dramatic figural design.
Alec Wildenstein characterizes the figure seen here as a samurai warrior; however, this designation more correctly pertains to the sword-wielding figure seen from behind on the reverse side of the vase (fig. 4). The figure depicted in Redon's pastel is actually a wild-haired demon who casts its spell while brandishing a twig from a tree. Both figures are characters in the Noh play Momijigari (Excursion for Viewing Maple Leaves), which culminates with a battle between the noble warrior Koremochi and three women on a forest excursion who have suddenly transformed themselves into demons. It is unclear if Redon knew the story behind the subject on his vase, or if he meant to convey any particular meaning in using it, other than taking advantage of its striking visual appearance for decorative purposes. In any case, the animistic, supernatural aspects of Japanese folklore resound in Redon's own magical evocation of nature, and one may easily appreciate the artist's attraction to this object, which he probably picked up in a local market.
Gloria Groom wrote that "At the end of 1906, perhaps to relieve the boredom of reinventing the same basic composition, Redon began making oil replicas of his pastel still lifes, noting to [Andries] Bonger that it 'is an occupation that does not tire me' " (in D. Druick et al, op. cit., p. 271). The present pastel, with some elements from the related work, W. 1523, is the model for the oil painting of the same title, W. 1525 (fig. 5), on which the artist further improvised, as in the addition of two fluttering butterflies. Many of these oil paintings were included in an auction of Redon's work on 11 March 1907 at Hôtel Drouot. More than half of the lots offered were floral still lifes. Most of these were sold, and the proceeds enabled the artist to erase his share of a large outstanding family debt. The sale attracted many new collectors, and helped to establish Redon's reputation in the final decade of his life as an artist of exquisite refinement, singular imagination and rare fantasy.
(fig. 1) Henri Fantin-Latour, Bouquet de fleurs, (Christie's, New York, 8 November 2000, lot 11.)
(fig. 2) Odilon Redon, Mercure, 1877, (Christie's, New York, 7 November 2002, lot 116.)
(fig. 3) Japanese stoneware vase, late 19th century.
(fig. 4) Design on reverse of vase in fig. 3.
(fig. 5) Odilon Redon, Vase au guerrier japonais, oil on canvas, circa 1906, Pola Museum, Japan.