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Collecting Dreams

An exhibition of the museum's outstanding collection of works by Odilon Redon
Britany Salsbury, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
August 25, 2021
Orpheus, c. 1903–10. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). 1926.25

In his own time, 19th-century French artist Odilon Redon was described as “the prince of mysterious dreams” by one prominent art critic for creating paintings, drawings, and prints that imaginatively blended fantasy, literature, and the subconscious. Today, Redon is well represented in museums around the world, but the Cleveland Museum of Art was one of the first in America to collect his work. Beginning nearly a century ago, in 1925, the institution acquired masterpieces that both then and now are considered among the artist’s most noteworthy. Just one decade after the museum’s founding, the international press praised Cleveland as having the most important holdings by Redon outside Paris. This fall, Collecting Dreams: Odilon Redon celebrates Cleveland’s exceptional collection of his work. Featuring approximately 50 works in various media, including an exciting new purchase, the exhibition highlights the uncanny subjects and pioneering style that established Redon’s reputation.

Grey figures against black
Quasimodo c. 1875–80. Odilon Redon. Charcoal with fabricated black chalk and touches of white and gray gouache on gray wove paper; 36.8 x 32.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 2020.63

Redon belonged to a group of artists active in late 19th-century France who mined the cerebral and otherworldly by experimenting with color and form. Born in Bordeaux, he moved to Paris to study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts as a young man, but quickly became disillusioned by his conservative training. Redon, deeply depressed, dropped out after just a few years. Back home, he studied printmaking with eccentric artist Rodolphe Bresdin, and under his influence began to work almost exclusively in black media, ranging from inky lithographs to dense charcoal drawings. A recent addition to the museum’s holdings, Redon’s drawing Quasimodo exemplifies this practice by depicting the protagonist from Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The character’s isolation resonated with Redon, and he evoked these feelings using rich chalk. 

Orpheus, c. 1903–10. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). Pastel; 68.8 x 56.8 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift from J. H. Wade, 1926.25

A similarly dark print from Redon’s early series The Temptation of Saint Anthony features a disembodied eye floating in a dazzling white space above a vast mountain. Inspired by an avant-garde novel by Gustave Flaubert, Redon drew repetitive, vertical lines surrounding the orb that suggest lashes or flames. The artist often created prints as series, and Cleveland is fortunate to have several rare complete sets in their original portfolios. Many came to the museum as gifts of founding trustee Ralph Thrall King, who during the 1920s was known among New York gallerists for his tendency to purchase their entire inventories by Redon.

Andromeda,1912. Odilon Redon. Oil on canvas; 165.1 x 88.9 cm. Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection: Gift of David Rockefeller, 1963.012. Photograph courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

After a decade of drawing exclusively in black, Redon began to completely transform his work during the 1890s, when he discovered pastel. He used this powdery material, which consists of pure pigment, to mine new themes related to religion and mythology. The museum holds one of his most significant examples of these works—Orpheus of about 1903–10, which both historians and the artist himself considered among his greatest masterpieces in any medium. The drawing uses vivid contrasts of purple and ochre to present the god of music, whose melodies carried on after his death through his lyre and head. When the pastel appeared at auction in 1924 as the highlight of the sale of illustrious New York collector John Quinn, King and Cleveland’s curator of paintings William Milliken rallied the museum’s supporters to raise funds. They successfully bid on Orpheus and were able to add it to the collection, attracting worldwide attention.

In the decades that have followed, Redon has remained a cornerstone of the CMA’s acclaimed holdings of 19th-century French art. The institution’s groundbreaking collection by the artist was highlighted in a 1926 exhibition, alongside Andromeda, one of the most dazzling paintings from the end of Redon’s career, borrowed from a New York gallery. Collecting Dreams unites this canvas with Cleveland’s holdings by Redon for the first time in nearly a century, commemorating a moment at which the newly established museum earned international recognition. Now part of the collection of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, Andromeda draws from Greek mythology, presenting a beautiful maiden chained to a rock as she awaits rescue. Redon surrounded the figure in an elaborate border and dense patterning for decorative appeal. This important loan perfectly complements Cleveland’s abundant, representative holdings by Redon and is an ideal celebration of the rich legacy of this influential Post-Impressionist artist in Cleveland.