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Bits of Rainbows

Odilon Redon’s Vase of Flowers and the power of enlightenment
Heather Lemonedes, Curator of Drawings
December 21, 2015
Vase of Flowers, 1916. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). 1958.46

At first glance, Odilon Redon’s 1916 pastel Vase of Flowers may seem essentially decorative: a bouquet of anemones, tulips, sprays of a flowering shrub, yellow daisies, and baby’s breath celebrates the beauty and abundance of nature. All extraneous details of place and setting have been eliminated; only a delicate modulation of hue in the background indicates the tabletop.

Redon’s bouquet transcends the bourgeois interior; the flowers seem like those glimpsed in a dream. The artist’s rapturous flower pictures dominated the last decade and a half of his career and provided his greatest commercial success, but works such as Vase of Flowers surpass jewel-like color and shimmering surfaces. A rich spectrum of scientific and spiritual influences captivated the artist in his formative years and reverberated throughout his career.

Redon’s interest in plants and flowers began in his youth. A child of wine producers, he grew up on the family vineyard of Peyrelebade, northwest of Bordeaux. He sketched from nature along the dunes of the Atlantic coast and in the marshes of the Landes, becoming sensitive to the fluctuations in weather, light, and temperature that affected the grape harvest. When he was 20, Redon met the botanist Armand Clavaud, a tireless cataloguer of plant species of the Bordeaux region and a talented draftsman who illustrated his own Flore de la Gironde, a compendium of flowers published in two volumes in 1882 and 1884. Clavaud taught courses on botanical drawing at the Jardin Botanique, illustrating his observations on large placards—sometimes with real vegetal matter affixed to the surfaces—that illuminated botanical processes for his audiences of amateur enthusiasts. These meticulously rendered drawings providing detailed descriptions of invisible processes sparked Redon’s youthful imagination. He made detailed naturalistic renderings of plants and flowers that rivaled botanical illustration.

In step with contemporary Darwinian theory—The Origin of Species was published in 1859—in the early 1860s Clavaud became known for his progressive research, particularly his investigations of a particular species of algae gathered from the marshlands of Bordeaux that exhibited both plant and animal properties. The idea of hybridity fascinated Redon, who marveled: “[Clavaud] worked with the infinitely small. He searched . . . within the imperceptible world for that life which lies between plant and animal . . . this mysterious element that is animal being a few hours a day and only under the effects of light.” The search for the origins of human life, and for organisms that shared animal and plant characteristics, became one of the primary scientific quests of the 1860s. The idea that the origins of humankind could be found in simple botanical specimens percolated in Redon’s imagination for years before finding expression in his art. Lithographs such as La Fleur du marécage un tête humaine et triste (Homage to Goya: The Marsh Flower and a Human and Sad Head), from 1885, were among the first to articulate Redon’s fascination with human origin in unconscious nature.

La Fleur du marécage un tête humaine et triste (Homage to Goya: The Marsh Flower and a Human and Sad Head) 1885. Odilon Redon. Lithograph; 27.5 x 20.5 cm. Gift of the Print Club of Cleveland 1927.344.2


Clavaud’s philosophical and spiritual teachings ultimately proved as influential to Redon as the botanist’s scientific work. Pantheism appealed to Clavaud; he admired the 17th-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza, who believed that God was to be found in the study of the minutiae in nature. For Spinoza, God and nature were identical: deity was in the here and now, not transcendent. Clavaud regarded nature with awe, and believed in the possibility of an underlying universal harmony. It was not until after Clavaud’s death in 1890 that Redon found a way to fuse botanical references with spiritual life. Around 1900, after forging a friendship with the Naturist poet Francis Jammes, who like Redon had been a protégé of Clavaud, an iconographical breakthrough occurred in his work. Vibrant blossoms and foliage, illuminated with an otherworldly light, began to fill his pastels and paintings. That Redon returned to an intensive study of botanical themes in his mature career suggests the continued influence of Clavaud’s scientific and pantheistic teachings in his artistic consciousness. Jammes recognized the underlying aspects of spirituality in his friend’s still lifes: “Each flower is a summary of its total being—inner structure, color, and scent. It transforms itself into the messenger of innumerable nuances.”

Redon’s paintings and pastels of flowers were recognized by contemporary critics as symbolizing the power of enlightenment. George Athénas and Aimé Merlo, two cousins from the Island of Réunion, moved to Paris in the late 1890s to launch themselves onto the literary scene. Writing under the nom de plume “Marius-Ary Leblond,” they emphasized the spiritual aspects of Redon’s bouquets, describing his flowers as suggesting “initiation into wisdom and truth,” and his palette as having “religious resonance.” Other critics recognized the allusions to the intersection of plant and animal life in Redon’s flower paintings. The Belgian poet and critic Félicien Fagus associated Redon’s imagery with “humanized transformations of reality, developing eyes, faces, tentacles [hovering] between faces and flowers and spots of light.”

Spartan in detail but rich in luminosity, Redon’s still lifes with flowers—including the pastel Vase of Flowers (1916) and the earlier oil painting Vase of Flowers (c. 1905)—unite the earthly and the ethereal. The artist frequently selected handcrafted stoneware or glazed ceramics to contain his floral arrangements. Heavy, earthy vessels as in Vase of Flowers (c. 1905) have been interpreted as suggesting the material body or “head” from which luminous, ethereal flowers, or “thoughts,” spring forth. Redon’s portraits of the period, such as Violette Heymann (1910), in which a kaleidoscopic cloud of blossoms wafts around the head of a young woman seemingly lost in a state of reverie, confirm this reading of flowers as a projection of abstract thoughts, spirituality, or femininity.

Vase of Flowers c. 1905. Odilon Redon. Oil on fabric; 73 x 59 cm. Gift of Roberta Holden Bole 1935.233

Many years after Redon’s death, in a passage astonishing for its poetry and sensitivity, the Surrealist André Masson marveled over the marriage of fantasy and imagination in Redon’s flower pastels:

[Redon] made a collection of bits of rainbows, dust from stars and suns. He memorized the growth of plants, the way a petal falls, the sleep of the chrysalis. But he used this “botanist’s arsenal” to disclose mutations which he discovered in a light of fear and wonderment. Even his most reassuring bouquets suddenly will tear through their apparent repose, become astral vertigo, spurt and decline—a mystery.

It stands to reason that the anemones in Redon’s Vase of Flowers (1916)—depicted here in a deep violet variety—were among the artist’s favorite flowers; their centers suggest human eyes. 


Cleveland Art, January/February 2016