Baronne de Domecy

ArtistOdilon Redon (French, 1840–1916)
Dateabout 1900
MediumPastel and graphite on light brown laid paper
Dimensions61 × 42.4 cm (24 × 16 1116 in.)
Accession Number2005.1
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The head of the baroness de Domecy haunts this half-length pastel portrait almost as a ghostly absence, so psychologically remote is her expression, and so ethereal the graphite on the light brown paper. The monochromatic sobriety and aristocratic restraint of Odilon Redon’s characterization of the sitter, her features precisely observed and finely drawn, contrast dramatically with the blossoming of colors around her. Floating against a spatially indeterminate background, the floral bursts gain in magnitude and texture toward the edges of the composition, varying in tone from pale yellow, ocher, powder blue, moss green, and mauve, to dark aquamarine and royal blue—against all of which the orange and carmine of the sitter’s blouse stand out in vibrant contrast. The richness of color is matched by the variety of Redon’s layered graphic marks, the pastel stick laid down in hard, forceful strokes, gossamer skeins, vermicular squiggles and staccato accents.

The portrait internalizes to compelling effect the stark division in Redon’s work between graphic production in black and white, which dominated his art in the 1870s and 1880s, and his subsequent colored work in pastels and oils. This embrace of color, which Redon accomplished tentatively over the course of the 1890s, entailed a general lightening of mood. The brooding melancholy and obsessive dreamlike imagery of his famous “noirs” gave way to a new ebullience and engagement with nature, particularly as Redon tackled such new genres as portraiture and still life and ventured into large-scale decoration. This shift was indicative of the artist’s desire to expand his public beyond the narrow Symbolist circles in which he had attained cult status, as well as to broaden his reputation beyond that of a “literary” artist (which stemmed from his suggestive accompaniments to works by Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Gustave Flaubert).1

Early in his career, Redon had informally made portraits of himself and his family, but it was not until the late 1890s that he did his first commissioned work and started to position himself more professionally as a portraitist.2 He made portraits primarily of people whom he knew well—friends, close patrons, and their relations—and he would often include them in solo exhibitions, such as those he mounted in the galleries of the dealer Durand-Ruel in 1899, 1900, and 1903. Kevin Sharp describes the dynamic between Redon and his upper-class patrons:

The exhibition of his portraits was part of their sitters’ reward for commissioning the work, serving as an implied endorsement by the artist of their high quality, and … a validation of the patrons’ insight in having “discovered” the artist. The exhibition of portraits in turn both attracted new patrons and encouraged the lenders to purchase additional works… . For those who had commissioned portraits from him, with the exhibition of such works there was an implied responsibility, a noblesse oblige that would have made the refusal to participate in this exchange almost unthinkable.3

The portrait of the baroness de Domecy (née Bagneux) certainly falls into this category. Exhibited in the 1903 Durand-Ruel exhibition, it would certainly have validated the advanced taste of one of Redon’s most loyal patrons, in this case not the baroness but her husband, Baron Robert de Domecy (1867–1946), for whom Redon portrayed not only his wife, but also his children in various pastels and charcoal drawings.4 The baron had by that point known Redon for a decade. He had met the artist in 1893 while visiting his studio with André Mellerio, Redon’s friend and future biographer. The baron subsequently attended the artistic and literary gatherings that Redon hosted on Friday afternoons at his place at 32, avenue de Wagram in Paris—gatherings that included the writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, the composer Ernest Chausson, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the famous esthete Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, and the collector Maurice Fabre. The baron also corresponded with Redon when the artist was away from Paris, spending time in his family home at Peyrelebade.

From his first studio visit in 1893, the baron was an avid collector of Redon’s work. Over the course of the next seven years, he purchased charcoals and lithographs and also showed an early interest in the artist’s work in color, acquiring numerous pastels.5 In the late 1890s, the baron presciently saw Redon’s potential as a decorative painter. In 1896, the baron commissioned a panel for the library of the chateau he had built in Sermizelles (in the Yonne region of France), which would soon be followed by a decorative scheme for the dining room. Composed of at least fifteen panels executed from 1900 to 1901,6 this was Redon’s first major decorative cycle, and his subsequent career as a decorative painter owed much to its success. As Redon described the project, “the commission for an important work of mural decoration upsets all my routines… . I am covering the wall of a dining room with flowers, dream flowers, imaginary fauna… . It is a continuation of my art, I believe.”7

Fig. 1. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Domecy Decoration: Trees, Yellow Background, 1900–1901. Oil, distemper, and pastel on canvas, 247 x 173 cm (97 ¼ x 68 1/8 in.). Paris, Musée d’Orsay, RF1988-31.
Fig. 1. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Domecy Decoration: Trees, Yellow Background, 1900–1901. Oil, distemper, and pastel on canvas, 247 x 173 cm (97 ¼ x 68 1/8 in.). Paris, Musée d’Orsay, RF1988-31. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

The asymmetrically disposed clusters of “dream flowers” in the dining room panels resonate closely with the floral idiom that distinguishes his portrait of the baroness de Domecy, though one would never confuse the background of the pastel with a literal description of the decorations in the sitter’s home. Indeed, the color palettes are diametrically opposed, the dominant tone of the decorations being yellow (fig. 1), that of the pastel being blue. Intriguingly, the baron had put an interdiction on blue in the case of the decorative paintings so that they would harmonize with the rest of the room: “the colors that must dominate almost exclusively are red and yellow; blue won’t do” (le bleu ne vas pas).8 In the portrait, Redon was evidently under no similar constraint. It is tempting to speculate that the baron, knowing of Redon’s predilection for blue, had this pastel in view when warning the artist off that color at the outset of the project.

Redon is indeed known to have been working on a portrait of the baroness several months prior to his work on the dining-room panels. In February 1900 he was invited to Gommerville, the Domecy’s property in Saint-Romain-de-Colbosc (in the region of the Seine-Inférieure).9 As Redon wrote to his wife on February 3, “We are having snow. It’s magnificent and sad. It’s … freezing. And I am suffering from a detestable cold. I am being well taken care of. The portrait’s coming along, it’s getting better and better, thank God.”10

Fig. 2. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Portrait of the Baronne Robert de Domecy, 1900. Oil on canvas, 74 x 68 cm (29 1/8 x 26 13/16 in.). Paris, Musée d’Orsay, RF1994-19.
Fig. 2. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Portrait of the Baronne Robert de Domecy, 1900. Oil on canvas, 74 x 68 cm (29 1/8 x 26 13/16 in.). Paris, Musée d’Orsay, RF1994-19. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

It is not completely certain whether Redon is referring here to the Getty portrait or to the version in oil signed and dated 1900, now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (fig. 2). The Baroness’s profile and pose in the painting are nearly identical to those in the pastel, but the lower edge of the composition is extended so that her hands, clasped in her lap, are visible, as is one of the armrests of her chair. The painting differs even more notably from the pastel in its relative lack of chromatic and textural incident in the background. When the pastel was first exhibited in 1903, it was listed in the catalogue as a “sketch for the portrait of Mme X … ” (esquisse pour le portrait de Mme. X … ), suggesting that it preceded the oil painting. This would seem to be in keeping with Redon’s conception of pastel as a crucial way station en route to his mastery of color in oils. Facile with pastels in a way that he never would be with oils, Redon felt his work in pastel helped prepare and embolden him for his forays into painting. As he wrote in 1897 to fellow painter André Bonger, “Pastel, in effect, supports me materially and morally; it rejuvenates me. I produce it without fatigue. It leads me to paint based on attempts I have just made and I do not worry about putting certain things on canvas later.”11

It is equally plausible, however, that the pastel was produced after the painted portrait. Affixed to the back of the pastel’s pressed board support is a framer-mounter’s label reading J. Boyer / 38bis rue Fontaine 38bis / Paris, with a date stamp indicating when the framing and mounting must have been accomplished: 10 March 1903, which is to say, just two days before the opening of the Durand-Ruel exhibition. Either the pastel was begun early in 1900 but not properly prepared for display until it was called for three years later, or it was completed sometime after the painting. If one supposes that Redon was referring to the painting rather than the pastel when he wrote to his wife in 1900 that “the portrait is getting better and better, thank God,” one might infer that he had been experiencing some difficulties with it. The baron, and perhaps Redon himself, may not have been wholly pleased with the final results, deciding afterward to have the portrait reprised in the artist’s favored medium (pastel portraits would come to outnumber painted ones in Redon’s later years, and the fact that the artist chose to exhibit the present work rather than the painting suggests that he judged it more successful). It could also simply be that the baron wished to have a second version of the portrait, perhaps to grace a different residence.12

Whatever the case, the pastel’s designation as an esquisse certainly seems incorrect, given its high level of refinement (it is among the most fully elaborated of Redon’s pastel portraits) and the degree to which it dramatically departs from the oil painting in the treatment of the background. So different is the effect of the pastel that there can be little doubt concerning its status as an autonomous work. Whereas the painting appears to be a relatively conservative society portrait in which nothing distracts from the decorous, if slightly awkward, presentation of the sitter, the pastel lays heavy accent on the artist’s powers of coloristic imagination and free formal invention, portending a more general shift in Redon’s late work from the subject to its pictorial surrounds. The pastel’s identification as a sketch may simply have been a cataloguing error based on a presumed relationship between the two works and their respective media—one that ultimately is not borne out by the manner in which Redon shuttled back and forth between pastel and oil paint in his work of this period.13 Indeed, in at least one case—a portrait of Violette Heymann—Redon appears to have made a preliminary sketch in oil for the more accomplished work in pastel.14

Redon’s 1903 exhibition was no great commercial or critical success, but the few critics who did review the show drew attention to the portrait of “Mme. X… .” Writing in L’occident, Maurice Denis highlighted the contrast in Redon’s pastels between his sensitive portrait likenesses and liberated colors:

The background, or better yet the decor, these flowers, these flamboyant gems, these lights, these scintillations … work in concert … behind the dominant figure whose fine profile and modeling appears by contrast more precious, more expressive. These are the portraits of Mme X … , Mme A. F… . , and above all Mlle C… . 15

Critical validation was important to Redon with regard to portraiture, for besides the strategic role he assigned to the genre in cultivating a wider audience and circle of patrons, it also came freighted with art-historical significance. With the late portraits of such old masters as Rembrandt van Rijn foremost in mind, he considered portraiture to be “the final and highest effort of a painter.”16 As Gloria Groom has observed, while Redon’s portraits of women tend to present them passively and reinforce an age-old association of the feminine with the floral and ornamental, they also aim to conjure psychological depths in keeping with what Redon considered to be the best portraits of the past. In the case of the baroness de Domecy, the sitter’s withdrawn, almost hypnotic expression suggests a deep interiority, a rich inner life, which one might imagine to be projected outward in the “dream flowers” surrounding her.17 Some scholars have argued that Redon may also have meant to evoke through these abstract decorative means a deeply immersive experience of listening to music (note the prominence he accords the sitter’s left ear)18 or to conjure the fantastic colored auras or thought waves that turn-of-the-century spiritualists and clairvoyants believed to emanate irrepressibly from people.19

The weight Redon placed on the decorative surroundings in the portrait may also be understood more generally as an assertion of the artist’s own rich inner life. Flowers and flowerlike forms recur throughout his work, and in his writings flowers frequently supply metaphors for the creative blossoming of the artist’s imagination, for the lyrical expansiveness of his work. Existing in an indeterminate space between representation and abstraction, nature and fantasy, Redon’s “dream flowers” were in turn meant, in true Symbolist fashion, to induce states of indeterminate, free-floating reverie in his viewers. Indeed, whatever hint they may offer of the baroness’s interior world, Redon assured by her vague expression and three-quarter profile presentation that there be no direct, intimate connection between the sitter and the viewer, who is consequently left to project what he or she will onto the portrait and its pulsating floral dreamscape. “An art that suggests,” Redon noted, “is like an irradiation of things for the dream.”20

  • Scott C. Allan
    Written 2008, revised 2012

  1. On Redon’s complicated relationship with literature and late-ninetheenth-century French literary circles, see Dario Gamboni, La plume et le pinceau: Odilon Redon et la littérature (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1989).
  2. For a good discussion of Redon’s portraiture practice in connection with his marketing strategies, see Kevin Sharp, “Redon and the Marketplace after 1900,” in Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, 1840–1916, exh. cat., eds. Douglas Druick et al. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, with Harry N. Abrams, 1994), especially pp. 259–61.
  3. Sharp 1994 (note 2), p. 261.
  4. Redon did a portrait in charcoal of the couple’s youngest daughter, Jeanne Robert de Domecy, in 1905; see Alec Wildenstein, Odilon Redon: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint et dessiné, 4 vols. (Paris: Wildenstein Institute, 1992–98), vol. 1, p. 286, no. 725. Cara Denison has tentatively identified another drawing as a portrait of Jeanne Robert on the basis of similarities with the former; see The Thaw Collection, exh. cat., eds. William M. Griswold et al. (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 2002), p. 106, no. 49. Two pendant pastels originally in the Domecy collection are also likely portraits of Domecy children (there were six daughters and two sons altogether); see Wildenstein 1992–98, vol. 1, p. 67, no. 140; vol. 4, p. 242, no. 2567.
  5. On Redon’s relationship with the Domecy family and the baron’s various commissions to the artist, see Roseline Bacou, “La decoration d’Odilon Redon pour le château de Domecy (1900–1901),” Revue du Louvre et des musées de France 42, no. 2 (June 1992), pp. 42–52.
  6. In a 1901 letter to Bonger, Redon indicated that there were eighteen panels. Only fifteen are extant, however, and are now found in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. It is possible that the remaining three were not executed. See Bacou 1992 (note 5), p. 52. Until recently, a large pastel of flowers that completed the whole dining room ensemble was also unaccounted for; it now resides in the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo (Odilon Redon: Prince du rêve, 1840-1916, exh. cat., ed. Rodolphe Rapetti [Paris: Grand Palais, Galeries nationales, 2011], pp. 302–13, nos. 113A–P, entry by Marie-Pierre Salé).
  7. “J’ai repris le travail: j’y suis un peu plus poussé que selon ma normale par la commande d’un important travail de décoration murale qui dérange toutes mes habitudes; j’en serai occupé devant toute l’année. Je couvre les murs d’une salle à manger de fleurs, fleurs de rêve, de la faune imaginaire; le tout par grands panneaux… . C’est une suite de mon art, je crois” (letter to A. Bonger, January 17, 1901, in Lettres d’Odilon Redon [Paris and Brussels: G. Van Oest, 1923], pp. 43–44).
  8. Quoted in Bacou 1992 (note 5), p. 43. Bacou dates this missive to autumn 1900 (Ibid., p. 42n7).
  9. Bacou 1992 (note 5), p. 43.
  10. “Nous avons de la neige, c’est superbe et triste. Il fait un froid de loup. Et je vais, accompagné d’un détestable rhume. On me soigne bien. Le portrait va son train, il va de mieux en mieux, Dieu merci” (quoted in Bacou 1992 [note 5], pp. 43–44).
  11. “Le pastel, en effet, me soutient matériellement et moralement, il me rajeunit. Je le produis sans fatigue. Il m’a conduit à peindre; selon les essais que je viens de faire, je ne désespère pas de mettre sur la toile, un peu plus tard, certaines choses” (from Lettres inédites d’Odilon Redon, ed. Suzy Lévy [Paris: J. Corti, 1987], p. 66).
  12. As suggested in Wildenstein 1992–98 (note 4), vol. 4, pp. 240–42, under no. 2563.
  13. See, for instance, Redon’s versions in oil and pastel of the still life Vase with Japanese Warrior, in Wildenstein 1992–98 (note 4), vol. 3, pp. 112–13, nos. 1523, 1525.
  14. Wildenstein 1992–98 (note 4), vol. 1, p. 50, nos. 96–97.
  15. “Le fond, ou mieux le décor, ces fleurs, ces flamboyantes gemmes, ces lumières, ces scintillements, ces moisissures, se concertent, forment un tout localisé, cette fois, dans un plan, et en arrière de la figure dominante dont le fin profil, le modelé, par contraste apparaît plus précieux, plus expressif. Ce sont les portraits de Mme X … , de Mme. A. F… . , et surtout de Mlle C… .” (Maurice Denis, “Œuvres récentes d’Odilon Redon,” L’occident, no. 17 [April 1903], p. 256). The other portraits Denis is referring to are the portraits of Jeanne Chaine, now in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, and Mme Arthur Fontaine, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. See Wildenstein 1992–98 (note 4), vol. 1, pp. 45–46, nos. 84–85.
  16. As Redon wrote in his annotations to Emile Bernard’s essay, “Odilon Redon,” which appeared in L’occident in May 1904: “Je crois que le portrait est une des significations les plus hautes de l’art. Et je me suis toujours efforcé (et j’ai réussi quelquefois) de donner d’un être humain, son caractère seul, son caractère en soi. Faire un bon portrait me paraît être le dernier et le plus haut effort de l’art” (quoted in Roseline Bacou, Odilon Redon, 2 vols. [Geneva: Pierre Cailler, 1956], vol. 1, p. 279).
  17. See Gloria Groom, “The Late Work,” in Druick et al. 1994 (note 2), pp. 328–30.
  18. See Caty Telfair, “Interiors: Odilon Redon’s Portraits of the Baroness de Domecy,” in Mind and Matter—Selected Papers of Nordik 2009 Conference for Art Historians, Jyväskylä, September 17–19, 2009, ed. Johanna Vakkari (Helsinki: Taidehistorian seura, 2010), pp. 117–19.
  19. See, for instance, Barbara Larson, “From Botany to Belief: Odilon Redon and Armand Clavaud,” in As in a Dream: Odilon Redon, exh. cat., eds. Margret Stuffmann and Max Hollein (Frankfurt: Schirn Kunsthalle, 2007), p. 99.
  20. Redon, To Myself, trans. Mira Jacob and Jeanne L. Wasserman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), pp. 21–22.