Les Arbres (The Trees)
Odilon Redon, French, 1840–1916
Charcoal on paper
19 3/4 × 14 3/4in. (50.2 × 37.5cm) Frame (outer): 28 × 22 × 1 1/2 in. (71.1 × 55.9 × 3.8 cm)
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
SUBJECT AREALanguage Arts
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
The towering trees in this masterful charcoal drawing by Redon may recall the artist’s childhood home, an overgrown estate in the southwestern French town of Peyrelebade. The drawing reveals the artist’s careful observation of nature, combined with an interest in romantic subject matter.
The artist places the viewer low in the foreground, looking up at the towering trees whose height is enhanced by the cropping of the composition. Redon skillfully uses the tones of the charcoal to suggest the textures of the trees and grasses. The rendering of the trees relies on the contrast between light and dark tones to define forms, and the pale buff color used for the highlights is actually the color of the paper itself. The light and shadows playing over the surfaces create a mysterious, somewhat eerie mood.
Redon is best known for his pastels of flowers, and for renderings in diverse media of fantastic, often mystical subjects. Redon received his early artistic training in the city of Bordeaux, then later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1879 Redon published his first album of lithographs, and during the 1880s he occasionally exhibited his mysterious prints and drawings. He studied the use of line in works by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, as well as contrasts of light and dark in Rembrandt’s work. His interest in science led him to study Darwin, anatomy, and images seen through a microscope. For additional information about Albrecht Dürer, see Saint Eustace.
Redon worked exclusively in black and white from 1870 until the mid-1890s, creating hundreds of charcoal drawings, including The Trees. He called black “the most essential, the prince of colors.”¹ and often said that one could attain such an immense variety of tone in black and white that color was unnecessary. It was not until 1895 that Redon began to work in color.
1. George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 81.
Describe the different textures in this work.
How does the artist achieve tonal variation even though the main color is black?
How would you describe the mood of this drawing? Would the feeling be different if the artist had used color?
What is the artist’s viewpoint? How would you describe the way the artist frames his subject?
What effect does the close-up composition have? How would this be different if the artist showed the trees from far away?
What emotion or feeling does the artist evoke with this drawing?
Is this a precise study of nature or an idealization? Or both?
The artist called black “the most essential, the prince of colors.”¹ and often said that one could attain such an immense variety of tone in black and white that color was unnecessary. Do you agree?
Do the trees remind you something?
• Have students write first drafts of narratives set in this landscape. They should develop characters and write dialogue. Encourage students to use descriptive words and phrases to capture the mood and atmosphere of the art.
• Review the drafts, and have students write a final version of their stories.
• Publish stories using the computer. Display the narratives with the works of art (suggested title: Treemendous Tales).
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.