Redon started drawing as a young child, and at the age of 10 he was awarded a drawing prize at school. At age 15, he began formal study in drawing but on the insistence of his father he switched to architecture. His failure to pass the entrance exams at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts ended any plans for a career as an architect, although he would later study there under Jean-Léon Gerôme.
Back home in his native Bordeaux, he took up sculpture, and Rodolphe Bresdin instructed him in etching and lithography. However, his artistic career was interrupted in 1870 when he joined the army to serve in the Franco-Prussian War.
Analysis of his work
The mystery and the evocation of the drawings are best described by Huysmans in the following passage:
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 beareded man, reminiscent both of a Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannon-ball with his finger; a dreadful 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 .
As Huysmans notes, Redon was interested in a distinct perversion of the soul. He describes this more fully in a letter he wrote in 1871:
But the soul must be made monstrous: in the fashion of the comprachicos, if you will! Imagine a man implanting and cultivating warts on his face.
Redon also describes his work as ambiguous and undefinable:
My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined