This catalogue entry has previously been published in Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho (ed.), Odilon Redon and Andries Bonger: 36 Works from the Van Gogh Museum Collection, Amsterdam 2022.
This painted figure with closed eyes and a halo is the first ambitious painting that Odilon Redon (1840–1916) exhibited, presumably on the initiative of its new owner, Theo van Gogh (1857–1891). Theo, who in the autumn of 1889 was working hard with the organizer Octave Maus (1856–1919) to get the paintings of his brother Vincent (1853–1890) displayed at the group show of Les XX in Brussels, offered to make available to the exhibition his newly acquired Redon, which was given pride of place as number 1 in the catalogue.
Redon’s work was exhibited at Les XX at the beginning of 1890 under the title Au ciel (In Heaven). While Redon was mainly known from his drawings and prints in sober black, these first cautious steps in colour alerted them to a new direction in his practice. Theo van Gogh, who acquired more work by the artist for the art dealer Boussod, Valadon & Cie (formerly Goupil & Cie), had bought the painting for himself in July 1889 under the title Femme à l’Oreole (Woman with a Halo) and had it put in a heavy oak frame by the frame-maker to the avant-garde, Pierre Cluzel . The purchase can be thought of as both a declaration of love and a business investment. Together with his brother Vincent, Theo dreamed of an existence as an independent art dealer, and he occasionally bought artworks for their private collection that could serve as starting capital.
The bust of the woman with a halo was put on paper with thinned oil paint, which produced a flat, transparent and draughtsmanlike effect. The orange wove paper covered with a preparatory layer of cream-coloured paint shines through everywhere, and, together with the wispy lines and strokes, makes it seem as though the figure might vanish into thin air at any moment. The mysterious woman is, after all, In Heaven, as Redon himself called the work, and her halo emphasizes her immateriality. At the same time, there is something solid about her. All the orifices in her head (eyes, nose, mouth and ears) are smoothed over, so that she is hermetically sealed off from us. The purplish red points near both temples, as well as the lines projecting from her halo, might suggest the energy emanating from her inner world. The parapet, which displays an abstract landscape consisting of thin washes and a few spots of pigment, shows us something of the dream landscape in which she finds herself. This dream landscape is quite discoloured, however, as is the background. The paint layers that were covered by the frame and therefore less exposed to light reveal that the purplish pink of the background now looks more blue, and the yellow of the foreground more green .
The paintings that Redon had made before 1889 served as personal studies, which he did not show in public. That the decision to exhibit In Heaven was an unexpected move, even in his own eyes, is apparent from the many exclamation marks placed by Redon in his announcement to Maus that Van Gogh would be submitting a painting by him. The work must have been well received in Brussels, for shortly afterwards the co-organizer and art lover Edmond Picard, writing in the magazine L’Art moderne, reminded his readers of the painting and announced the appearance of a lithographic version in an edition of fifty, ‘for you Aesthetes, just for you’. In this lithograph of 1890, the halo has disappeared and the landscape is less ethereal . These changes possibly explain Redon’s new title, Closed Eyes. That same year Redon also made a new painted version of the work of approximately the same format as In Heaven. In this painting, conceived in cool blue tones, the figure seems to rise like an island out of the water, in which the light is reflected . The lithograph was shown at various exhibitions of contemporary prints, and soon another fifty impressions were pulled to meet the demand from collectors. Léonce Bénédite (1859–1925), himself a connoisseur of prints, was prompted by the iconic lithograph to acquire, in 1904, the painted version of 1890 for the Musée du Luxembourg, and thus Redon joined the official canon of French art. The great demand among collectors for this particular motif continued in the following years, as did Redon’s personal fascination for the subject, and until 1913 he therefore went on painting new variants of it, producing a total of twelve.
The female figure with closed eyes has been interpreted by critics, then and now, in various ways. The contemporary authors Edmond Picard and Jules Destrée saw the print – and thereby indirectly the painting – as the antithesis of the typology of the woman as a threatening femme fatale. Instead of stirring up unhealthy passions with a seductive glance and voluptuous body, this chaste vision aroused noble thoughts and feelings of purity. The halo in the painting heightens the suggestion of a holy virgin. Moreover, Destrée praised this female figure ‘of the most highly vaporous ideality’ for her inner life full of ‘brave and pure thoughts with just a touch of melancholy’. He therefore saw the woman as a mother figure, as a calm and more mature woman.
It is interesting in this respect to note that Picard thought he recognized the woman as a likeness of Redon’s wife, Camille, who had just given birth to their son, Arï (1889–1972). And although Redon played down the idea, he admitted that those close to him sometimes turned up in his work, unintentionally, because he hesitated to use professional models. He wrote to Picard: ‘An overly laudatory article, surprising me about everything you saw in it and all that I unconsciously put into this androgyne’s head. You saw the features of Madame Redon in it! Perhaps rightly so. Hardly ever using live models, it happens that I capture the faces surrounding me; but never for the monsters.’ However, Redon’s modelling of the woman after his wife seems to have been deliberate in this case. There exists a preparatory study on tracing paper of exactly the same format as the lithograph with her likeness in reverse and lithographic chalk on the back, to transfer the composition to the lithographic stone . The discovery of this portrait study with the same dimensions as the lithograph suggests the possibility that Redon’s print preceded the painting and that this study might therefore have been made before July 1889. This would mean the painted versions were made after the print, a working method that Redon used more often in the years to come.
In any case, all three – the study, the lithograph and the painted version in the Musée d’Orsay – share a number of interesting features with the version in the Van Gogh Museum. The lines of the shoulder and neck correspond, as do the jaw lines of the face. But all the other contours, such as those of the head and the hairstyle, are different in the Amsterdam version, in which the eyes, nose and mouth are turned more to the right. It is this less frontal view that makes the head in the Van Gogh Museum version look narrower. Thus it is possible that Redon used the preparatory drawing or another, earlier study or sketch of his wife as the basis of both the lithograph and our painting. Unfortunately, the genesis and chronology of the various versions made in different media cannot be determined precisely, but it is clear that Redon worked with a kind of template based on the features of Madame Redon.
To deflect from Picard’s identification of the woman as his wife, Redon thus described the image as ‘this androgyne’s head’. This designation shows that Redon shared the fascination, common in his day, for the androgyne. Symbolist authors saw this third manifestation of the sexes as a spiritual ideal, in which the fragmented qualities of man and woman merged to form the perfect whole. In their view, the androgyne could therefore serve to bind reality and the higher realm. Interestingly, a male model for this figure has also been suggested: Roseline Bacou was the first to point out the similarity of the pose of Redon’s female figure to that of Michelangelo’s (1475–1564) Dying Slave, which he could have admired in the Musée du Louvre .
In his art, Redon always strove for higher ideals, of which this androgynous figure in heaven was one of the most powerful examples, in the eyes of Redon’s admirers. By closing her eyes to the visible world, the dream figure communes with her soul, thus uniting her earthly nature and the divine ideal. In the oeuvre catalogue, the authors noted: ‘There is one lacuna in the oeuvre of Odilon Redon: the gaze.’ Indeed, almost all of Redon’s figures avoid our gaze, and Closed Eyes does this most emphatically. The many versions of the work, as well as the numerous publications about Redon that feature it on their cover, indicate that Closed Eyes has become the icon of Redon’s artistry. The figure’s purity and apparently rich inner life also inspired meditative calmness and lofty thoughts in the minds of the collectors of Redon’s art. ‘Art that makes one think! Art that makes one dream!’ exclaimed Picard with great admiration.
Andries Bonger saw both the lithograph and the painting, which had meanwhile been named Closed Eyes after the print, at the Redon exhibition that he had helped to organize at the Haagsche Kunstkring in 1894. The works must have made a deep impression on him, because in the following years he actively hunted for both the print (meanwhile sold out) and a painted version of the composition. Redon, who was helping Bonger in his search, alerted him on 18 March 1907 to the existence of a small, greyish version of the motif – admittedly ‘inferior to the one in Holland and the one in the Musée du Luxembourg’ – that had come onto the market via Jules Destrée. Bonger decided not to buy it, but Redon’s suggestion had fuelled his desire for the version ‘in Holland’. Bonger wrote to the artist, saying that he still had an indelible memory of the work but did not know where it was.
It stands to reason that Bonger had seen the work back in 1889 at his friend Theo’s in Paris, which was possibly his first introduction to Redon’s oeuvre and in any case preceded his making the artist’s personal acquaintance on 8 November 1891 through their mutual friend Emile Bernard. After Theo’s death on 25 January 1891, the work was inherited by his sister Wil (Willelmina; 1862–1941), but she had meanwhile been admitted to a psychiatric institution and Mrs van Gogh, their mother (Anna; 1819–1907), was ‘severely ill’. Shortly after Redon’s above-mentioned communication of March 1907, Bonger must have actively pursued the painting by approaching the family, because in August of that year, Redon wrote that Bonger’s wife, Annie, had told him about the recent purchase of ‘the sanguine of Closed Eyes […]. It is a light painting (on paper). I haven’t seen it for a long time. You always told me that it was good. You have always been so faithful to me.’ Bonger must therefore have acquired the work sometime between March and August 1907 from Wil’s possessions. In 1999 Bonger’s heirs donated the painting via the Dutch state to the Van Gogh Museum, and thus the work has come full circle. Thanks to Theo van Gogh’s exceptionally early appreciation of Redon and to Andries Bonger’s loyalty to the artist, as well as the generous gesture of Bonger’s heirs, this key piece in Redon’s oeuvre is still part of the Dutch national heritage.
Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho