France 1840 – 1916
[Les yeux clos] 1890
oil on canvas, laid on card
canvas 44.0 (h) x 36.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase from the artist 1904
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
A woman tilts her head, turning a naked shoulder and neck, while her body disappears into evanescent mists below. Her hair is long, but there is no feminine ornament or decoration. The subject is almost sexless, recalling images of Christ. Artistic exemplars include the perfect modelling of the Renaissance painters Piero della Francesca and Hans Holbein, as well as marble sculptures. The most striking parallel is Michelangelo’s Dying slave 1513–16, held in the Musée du Louvre since 1794. That figure is similar in pose but more emotional, with arm flung up and head inclined further. Redon’s subject is withdrawn rather than active, her face and flesh modulated by light falling from the right to define planes by contour rather than lines.
Redon creates a dream world, proposing an interior reality which is enigmatic and very difficult to penetrate. Instead of the colourful and tactile expressions of his contemporaries, the artist employed a very restrained method of painting. After a long apprenticeship in monochromatic drawing and printmaking, Redon began to explore colour through drawing in pastels, paler and less intense than oil paint. When he began using oils, this approach continued. Eyes closed has a pastel, chalky quality, not only in the pallid, restricted palette of blue and pink and brown, but in the paucity of paint applied. The canvas shows through, accentuating the minimal means used by the artist to convey the quiet, internal drama of the subject.
In Eyes closed, based on a drawing of his wife Camille, Redon investigates the ineffable state of sleep and dreams rather than the physical realm of bodily existence. He reveals the absence of personality in sleep, its similarity to death, and the ultimate mystery and unknowability of another person. Such elements were central to Symbolist artists and writers working in France in the second half of the nineteenth century. Emphasis on fantasy, the imagination, and spiritual rather than material striving, were tenets of the movement—and can also be seen in such other works as Moreau’s Orpheus and Puvis’ The poor fisherman.
As demonstrated in Denis’ Homage to Cézanne, in which Redon is represented at the work’s far left as the focus of attention among the group, the artist was revered by the Nabis. His qualities of purity and simplicity inspired them in their search for the intimate, private and hidden life, rather than the overt or public and exposed experience. Eyes closed, an important work for the Nabis, became the first work by Redon to enter the French state collection, in 1904.
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