Monday, January 5, 2015

Odilon Redon Uses Color to Make a Monster Gentle in His Painting of Cyclops

French Post-Impressionist Bertrand-Jean "Odilon" Redon (1840-1916) created works that were very fanciful and sometimes a little creepy (look up his bio on Wikipedia for a sampling), but my favorite picture of his is from 1914, just two years before his death, entitled "The Cyclops". We probably know the cyclops best from the Greek tales of Odysseus (The Odyssey, by Homer): he was a horrible, one-eyed giant who lived on an island and ate human flesh. Any sailors unwise enough to sail too close would be devoured!

But the cyclops had a softer side; he was madly in love with the sea nymph Galatea. She did not return his affection, and as can be imagined, that did not go well. But while he was besotted by Galatea, the cyclops became gentle, attempting to groom his wild hair and beard and give up his cannibalistic ways, only waving to passing sailors, rather than trying to snack on them. It is this gentle side that Odilon Redon captures in his painting, in which the cyclops, taller than a mountain, gazes down upon the nymph Galatea, napping among the flowers in the foreground.

How does an artist like Redon convey softness in his portrayal of a giant, one-eyed monster? Simple: he chose the appropriate colors. Notice how the soft pastel shades of the flowers are echoed throughout the whole painting, creating a calming, pretty effect. The loose brushstrokes of the Impressionist style also provide a kind of "soft focus" that downplays any monstrous characteristics, and last but not least, Redon rises above the expression-related challenges of one giant eye and masterfully uses the wistful tilt of the cyclops's head to convey all the feeling that needs to be conveyed. This is truly a masterpiece, and I hope you like this painting and see the appeal, despite the rather strange subject matter.

Image from
Click the painting to enlarge for detail!

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