Odilon Redon

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Odilon Redon
The Tree Man
ca. 1895
Charcoal and graphite pencil on light brown paper.
20 1/16 x 14 3/4 inches (510 x 376 mm)
Thaw Collection.

This enigmatic depiction of a tree set in barren landscape, the trunk of which also serves as a neck supporting a man's head, is typical of the fantastic hybrids Redon conjured in his charcoal drawings. From his earliest years, Redon was interested in giving visual form to the subconscious. Sympathetic mentors were critical to Redon's development: Rodolphe Bresdin encouraged him to use his imagination, and botanist Armand Clauvaud fed his fascination with the mysteries of the natural world.
Redon worked purely in black media after returning from the Franco-Prussian War, through the 1870s and 1880s. His noirs are sometimes given a touch of color by the use of lightly tinted paper, as in the light brown of the present sheet. In all, Redon executed some 600 charcoal drawings before turning back to the use of color in the 1890s. During this time his subject matter was dark and searching and often explored hybrid creatures, rich with associations. Here, the head's spiky crown and melancholy downward gaze evokes images of Christ, mocked as he wore the crown of thorns. Redon was fascinated with “the confines of the imperceptible, that intermediate state between animal and plant life, of flower or being, that mysterious element which is animal for a few hours of the day but only under the action of light.” His metamorphosed beings defy interpretation but successfully convey an unsettling sense of the subconscious at a time when Redon was suffering personal loss and hardship.
Redon was skeptical of the Impressionists, who hewed too closely to the observable world. He argued that an artist “must be a poet figure studying nature closely, but using this study as a basis for expressing fantasy and the imagination.” As a Symbolist artist with strong ties to eighteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century Surrealism, Redon defies categorization. He was influential on the Nabis and the Fauves, and Maurice Denis wrote of him: "...it was Redon who, with his series of lithographs and admirable charcoal drawings, determined in a spiritual sense the evolution of art around 1890. He is at the origin of all esthetic innovations or renovations...The lesson of Redon was his incapacity to paint anything which did not represent a state of soul.”

Ven House, Somerset; sale, London, Christie's, 1 July 1999, lot 834; Eugene V. (1927-2018) and Clare E. (1924-2017) Thaw, New York and Santa Fe.
Associated names: 

Thaw, Eugene Victor, former owner.
Thaw, Clare, former owner.


The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY, "Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection", 2017. Exh. cat., no. 315, repr.

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