Odilon REDON | The sleep of Caliban [Sommeil de Caliban]

Odilon REDON
France 1840 – 1916

The sleep of Caliban
[Sommeil de Caliban]
oil on wood
panel 48.3 (h) x 38.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Mrs Arï Redon, according to the wishes of her husband, the artist’s son 1982
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Christian Jean

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
—William Shakespeare, The tempest1

In The tempest, Caliban is a strange being who exists on the verge between human and animal. He and other creatures inspired Redon to produce many charcoal drawings in the 1870s. Known as ‘noirs’, these highly original works evoke mysterious beings in a world of subjective, often melancholic fantasy.2 In graphic form Redon depicted Caliban as a sombre, pixie-like creature perched in the fork of a tree, looking pensively out at the viewer.3 In the present work Redon returns to his earlier subject, using colour and a fantastical landscape to very different effect.

Redon admired Shakespeare, and the figure of Caliban (variously described as a wild or deformed man, or even as a combination of human and fish) is quite at home in the artist’s complex repertoire of strange images. Literature, myths and his fascination with the natural world provided Redon’s inspiration. He visited the Museum of Natural History in Paris, attended medical lectures, and studied scientific illustrations of the day; he was influenced by Darwinist notions of mutation and, via his friendship with the botanist Armand Clavaud, was introduced to a new world of nature as observed through the microscope. Many of the figures in Redon’s compositions seem to have been inspired by amoebic forms.

The sense of heightened observation in Redon’s work is combined with a dreamy otherworldliness. Decapitated, floating heads appear throughout his oeuvre—sometimes those of Orpheus or John the Baptist, at other times heads which are winged or borne aloft by balloon-like eyes. Even when attached to bodies, we have the sense that these heads might float free at any moment. Redon’s fluttering, head-like creatures are often interpreted as a reference to Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. In the present work, the heads may represent Ariel and the other spirits on the island. Rugged, gnarled trees are also consistent motifs in Redon’s work. The large tree in the foreground here may be the one in which Ariel was imprisoned, and from which he was subsequently rescued by Prospero, an act which bound him in service to the magician. The sleep of Caliban is an impressive evocation of the sounds and ‘sweet airs’ of Shakespeare’s world. Its gloriously encrusted paint surface and pastel-like colours are also a good example of Redon’s impact on the Post-Impressionists generally, and on the Nabis in particular.

Lucina Ward

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Act 3, scene 2, viewed on 1 September 2009, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/tempest/tempest.3.2.html.
  2. Richard Hobbs, ‘Odilon Redon’, Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 26, London: Macmillan, 1996, p. 71.
  3. Caliban 1881, charcoal on buff paper, 49.9 x 36.7 cm, Musée du Louvre / Musée d’Orsay, Paris.