Here are a list of things I find remarkable about this portrait:
– the luminosity of the yellow dress
– the way the floral arrangement starts out as ‘real’, emerging from a vase, and then morphing into an imaginary bower of flowers that decorate the picture and create an arch over the subject, highlighting her
– the translucency of the fabric Madame Fontaine embroiders
– the depiction of the lace on the dress (both at the collar and at the end of the sleeve), it’s softness, it’s transparent quality
– the range of pastel layers, from a single application of pastel to a heavy coating and all of it working together
– the gentle contemplative expression on her face
– the indistinct sewing hand which suggests its movement
– the dark richness of her hair and the soft quality of the atmosphere around her head
Let’s take a closer look at the details:
Odilon Redon, “Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine,” 1901, pastel on paper, 28.5 x 22.5 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – detail. Here you can see the sewing hand and how little there is to indicate it. And can’t you feel the substantiality of the other hand holding the hoop? And look at the lace especially at the elbow (you can see Madame Fontaine’s arm beneath the fabric) and the shoulder where the yellow of the dress glows through. And the fabric she’s embroidering, look at the way the weave seems to be coming apart at the lower left. Such details caught by Redon!
Odilon Redon, “Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine,” 1901, pastel on paper, 28.5 x 22.5 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – detail. In this close-up you can see many kinds of pastel application – the very light touch to the left of the picture, the much heavier hand around the head creating a soft, dense quality, the even parallel hatching of pastel on the face with subtle colour changes in those strokes, the dense application and texture in the hair (you can even see what looks like a barrette holding her hair in place), and the more ‘jerky’ application of pastel on the collar.
Odilon Redon, “Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine,” 1901, pastel on paper, 28.5 x 22.5 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – detail. This image shows the relationship of Madame Fontaine to the vase behind her. Here the vase and flowers bursting forth look real, as if they are perfectly natural. (Mind you those green ‘flowers’ look rather mysterious!) It’s difficult to discern the actual pattern of the black areas on the vase but they appear to be decorative elements. Now compare this image with the next…
Odilon Redon, “Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine,” 1901, pastel on paper, 28.5 x 22.5 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – detail. You can see how the flowers move from a realistic interpretation to one that becomes imaginative and dreamy, perhaps symbolically referring to the inner life of the subject – her beauty, her calm, her quiet intention. You can also see in the top left corner, Redon’s signature as well as the inscription which reads, ‘fait a St.. -Georges-de-Didonne / Septembre 1901.’ The Redons were staying at this seaside resort on the southwest coast of France and were visited by the Fontaines.
Odilon Redon, “Portrait of Madame Arthur Fontaine,” 1901, pastel on paper, 28.5 x 22.5 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – detail. One more close-up to show Redon’s pastel application. The shadowed area under the embroidery hoop is a rather light application of dark pastel while the dress is a build up of yellows ending with the brightest and lightest yellow being cross-hatched over top. And look at the parallel lines to the right darkening the space between Madame Fontaine and the vase.
I am reminded, looking at these few pastels, of Redon’s amazing use of colour, the saturation he achieved and his combinations of colours. The first part of his artistic life was all about black and white – primarily charcoals and lithography – and all of a sudden in his fifties (1890s) he moved into using luminous colour both in pastels and oils. Quite the change!
To see how his work developed over the years, check out this fabulous interactive … I don’t know what you call it! – at the MOMA. To see it click here and go to All Works.
I’d love to know what you think of this portrait and also about Redon’s pastels in general. Remember, you can always comment by sending a reply to me and I will attach it to the blog.
Thanks for sharing this journey with me,
PS. You know I can’t help myself.. here’s another portrait by Redon:
Odilon Redon, “Violette Heymann,” 1910, pastel on paper, 28 5/16 x 36 3/16 in, Cleveland Museum of Art. Talk about colour! And the imaginary bower of flowers has been elevated to prime importance! And look at the application of pastel, with paper completely untouched on the left compared to the heavy application of pastel around the head of the figure – there’s no sign of paper here.
PPS. Madame Fontaine has painted by other artists. Here is an example by Vuillard painted a couple of years later. (Yes I know it’s not a pastel but it’s worth seeing isn’t it?!)
Edouard Vuillard, “Madame Arthur Fontaine in a Pink Shawl,” 1903, gouache and oil on cardboard mounted on cardboard, 19 3/4 x 17 1/4 in,The Art Institute of Chicago