To get at the nature of Odilon Redon’s genius requires us to look at his whole career, the three and a half decades of which were divided into two distinct phases. From 1880, when he began showing at the age of forty, to about the early 1890s, Redon worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, on the prints and drawings that he called his noirs, and seems to have produced little if any painting. By about 1890, he had begun painting regularly in oil and distemper, and drawing in full-color pastel, and from then until his death in 1916 his output was predominantly in color. Redon’s statement that “a truly sensitive artist does not find the same invention in different materials, because he is affected by them differently” seems meant to underscore the variety and multiplicity of his metaphors.

The more familiar Redon is the inventor of those strange images of his first phase—the detached and floating...


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