Cover image for The Dark Side of Nature: Science, Society, and the Fantastic in the Work of Odilon Redon By Barbara Larson

The Dark Side of Nature

Science, Society, and the Fantastic in the Work of Odilon Redon

Barbara Larson

384 pages
11" × 9.5"
187 b&w illustrations

Refiguring Modernism

The Dark Side of Nature

Science, Society, and the Fantastic in the Work of Odilon Redon

Barbara Larson

“Larson’s book is a scholarly, in-depth but highly readable study of the pictorial works of the artist Odlion Redon as they relate to political, scientific, and philosophical developments in France after the Franco-Prussian War.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
“The artist . . . will always be a special, isolated, solitary agent with an innate sense of organising matter.” —Odilon Redon

“Disturbing,” “hallucinatory”—words that evoke pathology rather than history— have long framed our understanding of Odilon Redon (1840–1916), a French artist admired by the Surrealists as a precursor in their exploration of the irrational. In this book, Barbara Larson takes a radically different view of Redon, one that does not attempt to deny him melancholia but does go a long way toward dismantling the paradigm that treats the cult of the irrational as the essential condition of his work. Larson instead contends that Redon should be seen as a gifted mediator of a context in which new scientific ideas mingled with the fears of social and racial decadence widespread in France after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War.

Larson begins by investigating Redon’s early years in the Bordeaux region, where he met Armand Clavaud, a botanist who encouraged his interest in the mixture of botany, geology, zoology, and landscape studies then called Naturalism. Subsequent chapters integrate Redon’s concentration upon black-and-white graphic media and his absorption of Darwin’s teachings and new trends in physiology, psychology, and microbiology. All this enables Larson to offer insightful readings of Redon’s predilection for bizarre, polymorphous forms.

The Dark Side of Nature demonstrates that, at least insofar as Redon is concerned, late-nineteenth-century science meant not positivistic engagement with a stable material world, but rather the exploration of vast “invisible” realms, from microbes to electricity. With its clear exposition of scientific thought, Larson’s book will undoubtedly make a significant contribution not only to Redon studies but also to the interdisciplinary study of art and science.

“Larson’s book is a scholarly, in-depth but highly readable study of the pictorial works of the artist Odlion Redon as they relate to political, scientific, and philosophical developments in France after the Franco-Prussian War.”
“All of the artists whom Redon admired were distinguished by their craftsmanship, a quality that he emphasized in living nature as well as in art. Accordingly, the craftsmanship of the images Larson has assembled demands a book formatted to bring them to life. This desideratum has been realized splendidly in the very high production values of The Dark Side of Nature. In its look and feel it bears the mark of a devoted collaboration between a knowing author and a publisher committed to producing a book of very high quality.”

Barbara Larson is an Associate Professor at the University of West Florida.


List of Illustrations



1. Science and Romantic Naturalism in the Early Work of Redon: 1855–1870

2. Nationalism, Naturalism, Fantastique Réel

3. Evolution and Degeneration

4. The Microbe

5. Cosmos

6. The Unconscious Mind and the Dream

7. Scientific Fantasy in Context

8. The Natural, the Spiritual, and the Ideal: The 1890s






The Dark Side of Nature: Science, Society, and the Fantastic in the Work of Odilon Redon explores the influence of the great nineteenth-century scientific debates on one of France’s most important graphic artists. Redon came of age with the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), and he executed the majority of his fantastic noirs (charcoals) and lithographs over the next three decades. A new republic taking shape in the years after the war committed itself to national rehabilitation through the progress of science, yet Redon was one of many who found in science and its discourses confirmations of waning strength or destructive, regressive behavior and man’s powerlessness before the invisible forces of the

natural world. Redon often responded to public fears in light of the new revelations of science being popularized in these years.

Redon’s deepening interest in the relationship of science to society by the late seventies corresponded not only to the anticlerical Third Republic’s promotion of science as the way out for a defeated nation but also to the abandonment of long-entrenched mechanical explanations of the universe and old-fashioned systems of classification. Although dramatic changes in the natural sciences had been germinating in the fertile decade of the sixties, it was not until the midseventies that these changes were widely accepted and instituted in France. The ideas that man was a superior entity and part of a separate creation, that species were immutable, and that the laws of an ordered, regulated universe could easily be observed and understood—espoused by Georges Cuvier, for example—were being discredited by new scientific theories that accepted continuous change and uncertainty of end product. With the dawn of a new age in which evolution and degeneration were firmly validated, replacing Cuvier’s vision of time, and physiology (life’s processes) was emphasized over external appearances, and the principles of the cosmos were found to be more dynamic that static, man’s position within nature and his vulnerability to its processes and powers became one of the major avenues of philosophical exploration of the end of the century. A virtual scientific revolution challenged and undermined the mechanical concept of our ordered, regulated world.

In light of the growing acceptance of transformations over time in the organic and inorganic natural world, origins became, by the middle of the nineteenth century, a central issue in understanding nature: origins of the earth, solar system, living organisms; and key in understanding the historical development of structures was the concept of evolution. Although evolutionary theory itself has a lengthy history, Darwin’s ideas significantly contributed to the concept of dynamic principles and undermined predictability and the notion of consistent laws that characterized midcentury science, and were central in shaping the French natural sciences in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

That science was central to Redon’s maturation as an artist work is explicated in the publications of the artist’s original biographer and friend, André Mellerio. Mellerio uses the contemporary sensational language of popular science in emphasizing the artist’s point of departure in the natural world. In the section “Fundamental Principles of Composition” in his 1913 biography, Mellerio writes:

First of all, we would say that Redon was profoundly struck by a vision of Cosmos and Humanity brought about in the nineteenth century. Huge and disquieting in its discoveries, science ceaselessly struggled to uncover all that lay before it. . . . Thus, prehistory, microbiology, and evolution cast their light over the darkness of the mystery of our origin. . . . Prehistory illuminated the past. Antediluvian strata have yielded unimaginable monsters that scientists have reconstructed. In those years, so long ago, nature developed out of primordial swamps and in its fecundity and exuberance seemed to produce an inexhaustible number of forms. Vegetation, diminishing later, bloomed in forests of flourishing ferns. And when animal life emerged, huge species were born, which have either disappeared today or are represented by degenerate descendants. Everywhere there were sluggish batrachians and dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, along with terrified flittermice or bizarre pterodactyls streaking through a sky charged with heavy clouds. Then came forth a legion of creatures furnished with tools: fangs, jaws, and claws; muscular, formidable, and supremely destructive herds. . . . Then the age of huge mammals: early elephants, mastodons, shaggy mammoths with huge curving tusks, tigers and cave bears . . . then man appeared. . . .

But at the same time, like a counterpart, the curtain rose on another spectacle. This time, it was the microscope that opened to us a new aspect of the world. . . . Circular cells [now visible] with vibrating hairs, spherical protoplasm, forms that transform and continue to swarm, they twist, half-devouring each other. . . .

Such were the subjects meditated upon in the past and the present. . . . And this double horizon appeared just at the moment regions of the earth were being examined, the seas explored, the ether violated and transcended. . . . Redon experienced these new “frissons,” and he laid claim to rendering them, not in a precise, dry fashion, but in a vibrant artistic one. He didn’t stop to measure exact dimensions, to count the number of feet or antennas, but rather he attempted to restore the profound emotion that emanates from such a powerful Creation. . . . the artist, as if intoxicated by the spectacle of primordial epochs, and by the microbial world, along with the fecundity of nature, came to create monsters. At that time, when the theories of a Darwin and of a Haeckel, or the experience of a Pasteur, impassioned and revolutionized the scientific world, repercussions were to be felt as much in the public realm.

Despite Mellerio’s interpretation of much of Redon’s work in its response

to science, the majority of Redon’s critics described his work in vague terms like “mysterious,” “fabulous,” or “macabre,” a rhetoric that persisted through the first half of the twentieth century. It was not until Sven Sandström in the fifties published his important study on Redon, Le monde imaginaire de Odilon Redon, that the scientific aspects of Redon’s work were explored in any depth. His chapter “Symbolisme évolutioniste” promoted a Darwinian interpretation. Jérôme Viola refuted this analysis in an article published in the 1960s. Finding Redon too spiritual to be deeply involved in new currents of biological evolution, he posited the greater importance of the Romantic chain of being. In 1994, the exhibition catalogue Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams (Art Institute of Chicago) made a serious attempt to reconsider certain of Redon’s scientific sources. Making much use of the museum library’s recently acquired Mellerio archive, the catalogue brought into focus once again the issue of biological origins and Darwin. However, there was no mention of Pasteur’s important discoveries and only a limited attempt to subsume science under a broader cultural and social perspective. Instead, the catalogue excelled in its closely studied, nearly year-by-year presentation of the artist’s biography, noting friendships, influences, and the artist’s relationship to the marketplace.

The present study examines the influence of political and social ramifications of nineteenth-century scientific debates upon Redon’s work and the ways in which the artist’s charcoals and lithographs respond to public anxieties that emerged from them. It recognizes the critical importance of the Franco-Prussian War in engaging science within broad cultural discourses that characterized fin de siècle France. Further, it argues that Symbolism as a movement often responded directly to scientific discoveries and that it in many ways extended or exaggerated Naturalist subjects and concerns, such as illness, madness, and fatal women. Scientific concerns of both Naturalists and Symbolists met in the nexus of Decadence, a movement usually considered an early phase of Symbolism in the pictorial arts. With literary influences like Baudelaire and Poe and artistic influences like Goya and Gustave Doré, Decadence emphasizes themes of social and physical decay along with morbid eroticism. In the early eighties Redon was befriended by the Decadent writers Joris-Karl Huysmans and Emile Hennequin, who saw him as a kindred spirit. Their writings and Redon’s art of the 1870s and 1880s are inflected with the language of scientific determinism—the stresses of the nervous system, morbid heredity, and psychopathology. “Le monde invisible” being revealed in medicine, evolutionary theory, astronomy, and psychology had its appeal to a broad range of writers, artists, spiritists, and popularizers and provided a rich source of reference and validation for a variety of explorations. Science and its cultural discourses constituted a deeply penetrating and interconnecting web that interfaced with politics, social hierarchies, and modes of representation in literature and art.

Chapter 1 examines Redon’s early development as a landscape artist against the backdrop of the Romantic view of nature and significant developments in science by the 1860s. It investigates Redon’s exposure to science through public instruction, scientific and literary circles in Bordeaux, debates in the capital, and the artist’s friendship with the botanist Armand Clavaud.

Chapter 2 explores the importance of the Franco-Prussian War to the artist’s maturity, his choice of media, and the mood of melancholy or anxiety that would characterize his work for the next two decades. It discusses the nascent Third Republic’s role in promoting Naturalism and progressive aspects of science, and Redon’s indebtedness to the Naturalist movement in art and literature. It also looks at the public fascination with institutions like the morgue and the Musée Grévin. Finally, it discusses Redon’s emergence as an artist of the fantastique réel.

Chapter 3 addresses theories of evolution, prehistory, and degeneration.

Redon examined man’s relationship to his animal and even vegetal past. He looked not only at the emergence of man but at his inherent barbarism and the pessimistic prospect of his eventual devolution, or decline. Darwinism entered France after the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune and informed attendant theories on man’s aggression, regression, and potential for collapse. Redon responded to evolutionary as well as medical models of degeneration theory.

Darwin, who discredited the idea that man was the planned pinnacle of divine creation, was central to philosophical discourses coming out of developments in astronomy, microbiology, anthropology, and psychology. Individuals varied within the species, and those best suited to present circumstances proliferated. Nature was random and nondirected—bereft of a divine plan. Struggling to survive and successfully procreate like all living species, man no longer held central authority on earth or within the cosmos. His diminished stature and humble aspect before the “terrible expansion of space” and proliferating microscopic world was an important part of the psychological terrain of the noirs.

Chapter 4 examines the effect of the Pasteur’s work on French culture and Redon’s response to it. Microbiology revealed a terrifying social menace to a nation increasingly obsessed with morbid biology after the loss of the war—lethal germs could be anywhere and, in spite of their association with the lower classes, threatened the population at large. Despite the advances in the medical sciences that allowed for knowledge of germ theory in the first place, the microorganisms seemed ultimately more powerful than the scientists who discovered them. In the wake of their unstoppable advance, the death statistics from contagious illness skyrocketed at the fin de siècle with serious consequences in Redon’s own personal life. This chapter explores the artist’s response to “microbiomania,” the hygiene campaign, and “syphilophobia.”

Chapter 5 discusses the new astronomy, or astrophysics, and Redon’s cosmological drawings and prints. Astronomy presented a further blow to the self-confidence of modern man, another subject of dread in Redon’s work. Scientists might be revealing the existence of new stars, nebulae, and intensively active cosmic phenomena, so memorably encapsulated in van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), but this made earth (and man) ever more humble and minute. In an expanding universe with randomly shooting meteors and comets many times the size of our own planet, earth was but a vulnerable speck, and most possibly (even the scientists agreed) subject to a sudden and cataclysmic end. Redon’s interest in astronomy led him to a revival of celestial portents like eclipses and comets as dark specters tied up with the war. The chapter also explores the hot-air balloon as a recurring symbol in the context of French politics. Finally, the fantastic and spiritual legacy of astrophysics is examined in light of Redon’s work: the extraterrestrial-life debate was an international phenomenon by the 1870s, and the idea of spiritual life on other planets was connected with this hugely popular discourse along with Eastern religions and the occult.

Chapter 6 investigates the new dynamic psychiatry and the age of Charcot. Nightmares, hallucinations, irrational fears, madness, and bizarre obsessions were revealed to be part of unhealthy unconscious motivations that lurked in the hidden self. At a time when insanity was thought to be on the increase in France, many became fascinated with the idea of acting under the direction of the unconscious mind. Redon explored pathological aspects of the mind, from suicide (“The sinister command of the specter is fulfilled. The dream has ended in death,” from The Juror) to murderous obsessions (Berenice’s Teeth). His interest in morbid psychology responds to the broader concerns of a dispirited, anxious postwar generation. This chapter also looks at the deepening interest in the subjective and in the power of suggestion that followed developments in psychiatry, as well as the ways in which this trend influenced Symbolism.

Chapter 7 explores trends in scientific vulgarization, which emphasized the marvelous and fantastic aspects of the natural sciences. The public effect of the writings and illustrations of scientific popularizers was part of the backdrop for Redon’s fantastic works.

Finally, Chapter 8 turns to the period of the nineties, drawing together the threads of Redon’s interest in the natural world and his growing attraction to spiritual life and Idealism. His work from the nineties increasingly took up science’s implications for religion. This chapter argues that the scientific and the spiritual were often found to be compatible during this period of religious revival.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.