Les Arbres (The Trees)
Odilon Redon, French, 1840–1916
Sheet: 19 3/4 × 14 3/4 in. (50.2 × 37.5 cm) Frame: 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.
- Scan the artwork and make note of all the different textures that Redon has represented. Imagine the artist at work, making each texture with his charcoal and eraser. How many different styles of mark-making are represented here? How does Redon achieve a full range of tones, despite only working with the color black?
- Look closely at the shapes that make up this composition. How does Redon use light and shadow to delineate different areas in the scene?
- Describe the viewpoint of this scene. What words would you use to describe it? Where might the artist have been sitting as he drew?
- How does this composition differ from a more traditional landscape? Consider elements of other landscapes, such as horizon lines, linear perspective, and aerial perspective (the way further-away objects sometimes appear blurry and lighter in color due to atmospheric effects). Has Redon used any of these elements or techniques?
- Observe the way that Redon has cropped the composition. What effect does the cropping have on the subject? How might the artwork be different if we were able to see the entirety of the two trees?
- Describe the light in this scene. Where might the main sources of light be? Do you think it is a sunny day, or more overcast? How do the trees, and the surrounding underbrush, react to light and shadow?
- Consider the relationship between the two trees and the surrounding landscape. Why do you think Redon chose to emphasize the trees so dramatically?
- How would you describe the mood of this drawing? Justify your answer with visual details from the artwork.
- This drawing may depict Redon’s hometown, Peyrelebade in France. Based on this drawing, how might you imagine Redon felt about his hometown’s landscapes? What details in the drawing lead you to your conclusion?
- Redon, an artist best known for pastel drawings of flowers, chose charcoal for this piece. Imagine that he had instead chosen a colorful medium, like pastel. How might this drawing be different?
- Would you classify this drawing as a realistic study of nature, or more of an idealization? Why?
- Redon had a long-standing interest in science and scientific drawing, and over the course of his life studied Darwin, anatomical drawing, and microscopic imaging. Considering this interest in scientific representation, and the many artistic choices Redon made in creating this drawing, do you think he approached this scene with the eye of an artist or that of a scientist documenting a specimen? How do those two approaches differ?
• 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
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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.