“I have made an art according to myself. I have done it with eyes open to the marvels of the visible world and, whatever anyone might say, always careful to obey the laws of nature and life.” – Odilon Redon, “Confessions of an Artist” (To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, New York, 1986, p. 7).
Odilon Redon turned to the genre of the floral still-life, first in pastel and subsequently in oils as well, around 1900, when he was sixty years old. In discussing an early naturalistic example of this subject he had painted for Andries Bonger, one of his most loyal collectors, Redon wrote, “I have in my mind’s eye as one of the good things that I have painted, this vase of flowers, which has remained a vision for me... I do not know of anything that has given me more pleasure than such an appreciation of simple flowers in their vase breathing air” (quoted in Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, p. 294).
The flowers in the present still-life—geraniums, asters, daisies, larkspur, and anemones—possess the simplicity of which Redon spoke, rendered in a variety of brushstrokes of exquisite precision in size, shape, and hue to denote each bloom, virtually petal by petal. The effect is that which Redon judged essential when painting a still-life in oil colors of any subject, whether a piece of fruit or a flower: “In order to reveal beauty, the painting must be complete, solid, supple, rich in substance, also suggestive of this richness, this grandeur, whereby it reveals the presence of man: the ambience of thoughts surrounding it” (ibid.).
Having achieved an already considerable reputation as a draughtsman on paper, in his works in black and white—his “noirs”, as the artist called them— but among a limited if dedicated clientele of connoisseurs, Redon sought to expand the market for his art. The burden of outstanding debts following the sale of his family’s estate in Peyrelebade, Gironde, dictated a need for increasing the income from his work. Redon moreover wished to heighten his profile within the turn-of-the-century avantgarde, among those who shared with him the Post-Impressionist interests in Symbolism and decoration, especially artists such as Gauguin and his admirers, the young painters who called themselves Les Nabis, including Bonnard, Denis, Roussel, Sérusier, Vallotton, and Vuillard.
Landscapes comprised most of the relatively few oil paintings Redon produced before the mid-1890s. He now made a priority of taking on a more prominent, visible role as an artist working in oil colors on canvas. Indeed, Redon was seeking to imbue his work with that greater “richness in substance” of which oils are capable, in the physical weight and presence of the pigment on canvas, in conjunction with a more material concentration of hue and the subtle blending of tones. Having long worked in charcoal and black chalk, the use of color pastel sticks came to Redon quite naturally. Powdery pastels, held in place by means of special chemical fixatives, regale the viewer with evanescent color, a vision of the subject caught in its most fugitive aspect. Oil paints, by comparison, capably grace the eye with their suggestion of physical palpability in form and color, evoking natural, corporeal phenomena in a totality of nuance and resonance.
The use of oil colors also permits a fluid sense of space, apparent in Redon’s handling of the background in the present Fleurs, against which the firmly contoured and volumetrically shaded vase, brimming with blossoms, appears to hover weightlessly as if in vaporous emptiness. Only the merest suggestion of shadow on the lower right-hand side suggests that this weighty ceramic vessel may rest on any kind of a solid surface.
The arrangement of the blossoms in the present Fleurs is naturalistic; Redon likely painted specimens he gathered from his garden in Bièvres and arranged in this vase, which—as Alec Wildenstein noted—also appears, variously colored, in four other pictures (op. cit., 1996, nos. 1454-1455 and 1457-1458). The indeterminacy of the environment, however, connotes an imaginary, abstract space. “From reality, or in other words nature,” Redon wrote in 1887, “which is a pure means for expressing our feelings and communicating them to others, out of which our ambition to create remains in a dream state, a state of abstraction” (op. cit., 1986, p. 153).
The synthesis of these opposing pictorial strategies is effective both as decoration, in the manner of Gauguin and Les Nabis, and as Symbolism, the transmutation of nature into a heightened, visionary, and revelatory state. Redon’s use of vermilion and yellow, blended to create an intermediate orange tonality, is Symbolist in effect, contrasting the artist’s natural motifs against an environment that has been subjectively conceived, in the expression of a mood or a poetic, metaphysical state of mind that the artist wished to communicate to the viewer.
By 1904 Redon was devoting most of his time and efforts to creating flower compositions. At the Salon d’Automne that year he exhibited 60 works, a quarter of which were floral still-lifes; in his solo show at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1906 he included 29 flower pictures among a total of 53 works. Both exhibitions were critically and commercially successful; the income from his production in 1906 was the highest Redon had realized up to this point, and helped to alleviate his financial concerns. His clientele for such works was rapidly expanding. Rosaline Bacou, in conversation with Margaret Potter, dated the present Fleurs to the period 1905-1910; Ari Redon, the artist’s son, suggested a date of circa 1910 (op. cit., 1984, p. 208). “I am still wrapped up in flowers,” Redon wrote to a patron in 1905. “Painting, with its limitless resources, is an infinitely enjoyable art.” To Bonger in 1912, the artist commented, “If the art of an artist is the song of his life, a solemn or sad melody, I must have hit a happy note in color” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 288).