Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux, Aquitaine to a prosperous family. He began to study drawing formally when he was 15 but his Father insisted he change to Architecture. However when he failed the entrance exam he returned his focus back to the Arts. He took up sculpture as well as Rodolphe Bresdin taught him etching and lithography.
After a break in his artistic career to serve in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 he again returned to study art and worked almost exclusively in charcoal and lithography. He called these visionary works conceived in shades of black his Noirs.
He explained his discovery of charcoal in a letter. “This everyday substance, which has no beauty of its own, aided by my research into chiaroscuro and the invisible. It is a neglected material, scorned by other artists. I must say however that charcoal does not allow kindness; it is sober and only with real emotion can you draw results from it.”
This is a beautiful drawing with great atmosphere. Odilon has been very expressive with his tonal work. The darkest darks of the background make the trees pop and their definitions even more. That combined with the gradual tones of charcoal against the sepia background give a dark atmosphere and great depth to the whole scene. The twist of the left tree is all pointing towards the other tree as if it has spent it’s whole life to grow towards it. It is very knarled with age, and this is defined by the marks in the medium. This left hand tree is also a lot darker than the right which suggests to me that death is creeping up, that combined with it’s bare and baron branch suggesting dieback gives the whole drawing a very somber mood.
The right tree stands tall and strong, is well lit, and even has some small flowers growing up which suggests that its still has a lot of life yet to give.
Without all the tones that Redon has used here, this drawing just wouldn’t work. The background wouldn’t give so much depth and the foreground wouldn’t be able to create so much interest without all the ranges that he has used, even the highlights of the grass and the trees, without those the trees would be very wishy-washy and blend into the background.
“Those were the pictures bearing the signature: Odilon Redon. They held, between their gold-edged frames of unpolished pearwood, undreamed-of images: a Merovingian-type head, resting upon a cup; a bearded man, reminiscent both of a Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannon-ball with his finger; a spider with a human face lodged in the centre of its body. Then there were charcoal sketches which delved even deeper into the terrors of fever-ridden dreams. Here, on an enormous die, a melancholy eyelid winked; over there stretched dry and arid landscapes, calcinated plains, heaving and quaking ground, where volcanos erupted into rebellious clouds, under foul and murky skies; sometimes the subjects seemed to have been taken from the nightmarish dreams of science, and hark back to prehistoric times; monstrous flora bloomed on the rocks; everywhere, in among the erratic blocks and glacial mud, were figures whose simian appearance–heavy jawbone, protruding brows, receding forehead, and flattened skull top–recalled the ancestral head, the head of the first Quaternary Period, the head of man when he was still fructivorous and without speech, the contemporary of the mammoth, of the rhinoceros with septate nostrils, and of the giant bear. These drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of painting, they ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium.”
À rebours, chapter V
sources: moma.org; wikipedia.com