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the smiling spider (1887), redon

Artist: Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Technique: Lithograph

Dimensions: 27.9 x 24.1 cm (image)

Date: 1887

Location of creation:

Current Location: The Baltimore Museum of Art, USA

Movements: Symbolism

Theme: Symbolic painting

Subject: Smiling fuzzy spider tilted to the left.

drawing summary

In this sketchy image, where line is key, a wicked, perverted and fuzzy black spider, with ten legs and a toothy smile, is set somewhere in a corner of a house, as it looks at us like we are prey of it’s deceiving twisted plot.

general description

In this image, a spider with ten legs is shown on her side, leaning overhead to the left side of the floor. The spider possesses human features, in which a humanoid face is drawn with eyes, a nose and a smile showing teeth. The spider is presented in a simple setting, where it is only visible on the tiled floor and the blank wall.

The spider is a little demon representative of the twisted and wicked qualities of evil, possibly looking at the viewer as a viable prey.

Belonging to a series of drawings and lithographs pursuing the wicked, twisted and evil corners of the mind, often inspired in fantasies, dreams, psychiatry and the evolutionary theories of Darwin, these symbolic works were the precursors of the Surrealist movement.

This was not a commissioned work, it is a personal artistic pursuit of matters of the mind.

  1. The charcoal drawing on which this lithograph was based on (from 1881) is present at the Musée du Louvre.

content analysis

Simultaneous Repellent and Appealing Feeling: the combination of the creepy crawler with the twisted humanoid smile turns the creature, that would otherwise look only goofy and fuzzy, into something slightly disturbing and unsettling.

Spider as a Symbol:  The spider is considered to be an archetype of femininity, according to Freud. It is also associated with the cycle of life, to the acts of creation/beginning and death/end – cycle of life. It’s seen as a creative force through its weaving. Beyond all this, the spider is intrinsically connected with the dark spectrum of life, as it deceives, traps and controls its prey.

Hybrid Creature: The humanization of the spider, with teeth and nose, conveys a definite wickedness to the little demon. But those are not the only humanoid features. The fact the spider possesses ten legs relates to ten human fingers.

The Colour Black: the artist takes advantage of this sterile colour of power and authority, a colour that demands respect, according to his words, to intensify the macabre quality of the composition. This colour is often linked to witchcraft, black magic, violence, darkness and, obviously, evil. The black paint opposes to the white paper, reinforcing its negative role, not only in compositional terms, but also in symbolic terms.

Twisted Smile: The wicked smile represents the perverted quality of evil.

The composition is very simplistic, showing only two planes – the foreground, where the spider is, and the background – the blank wall. It also follows the rule of thirds, placing the head of the spider in the middle third and aligning the edge (where the wall meets the floor) with the lower horizontal third. The grid of the tiled floor also suggests some level of perspective, conveying depth to a rather simplistic composition.

Tension Line: A diagonal line divides the image from the top right to the bottom left, separating the bottom part of the composition (the lighter and clear portion), from the one above (darker, where the spider spreads its legs).

Shape: The image is composed of very simple shapes – circles of the spider’s head and eyes, and rectangles in perspective on the floor.

Line and Surface: The different textures are suggested by the differing line treatment, for example the tile floor is defined by a thin line, in the back wall the lines are scratched in a crisscross pattern, on the edge of the spider head, each hair is softly employed, and in the dark furry head, the block of lines creates a blurred and soft surface.

Colour: The artist only used black in the composition, the variations of tonality is exclusively given by the line work, which means it’s not diluted. The lightest value in the composition is the paper itself.

Rhythm: The creation of patterns and textures on the wall, for example, and the repetition of elements like the spider’s leg create a lightly rhythmic composition.

Light: The composition is, overall, very light. But the big black spider on the foreground contrasts heavily with the background, especially on the right. The left side of the composition, where the spider stands, turns slightly darker, like a shadow being cast by it, through the application of intertwined lines.

Drawing and Lithography: Redon worked closely with charcoal drawings and lithographs in black, for the speed of the process, capturing the artist’s vision in a quicker manner, and for its reproducibility into lithograph versions, which retain the same sketchiness and immediacy of the charcoal drawings. In this specific case, the print was based on a charcoal drawing, but the lithograph version makes for a deeper intensity of the black colour.

Imagination: Redon relied on his imagination and searched for inspiration in his dreams. This source of inspiration proved to be crucial in his creative process, giving life to his own creatures.

Use of the Colour Black: The artist chose to work only with black in these compositions. For Redon, the black was the only colour that imposed respect, and devoid of any sensual qualities, as he wanted his bizarre creatures to be just that, devoid of any additional content.

Creation of Hybrid Monsters: The artist combined the natural with the fantastical in order to explore his imagination (fantasies and dreams). These bizarre looking hybrids of humans and either animals or plants, were a result of scientific observations in the Paris Natural History Museum, of the artist’s fascination for the microscopic world of living things, of reflections on the theory of evolution of Darwin, and of Redon’s prolific imagination.

Redon’s Noirs: The drawings and lithographs in black of Redon’s creatures (or “black things”), paved the path to surrealism. The wicked and twisted monsters, like this smiling spider, are the children of evil and the macabre.

Precursor of Surrealism: These symbolic works that merged the natural and the fantastic, resulting in bizarre ‘monsters’, paved the grounds for Surrealists, as they often quoted his works in some way.

related works

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon Moves Towards Infinity
Date: 1878
Medium: Charcoal and chalk on coloured paper
Size: 42.2 x 33.3 cm
Location: MoMA, New York, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Crying Spider
Date: 1881
Medium: Charcoal on paper
Size: 49.5 x 37.5 cm
Location: Private collection, Holland

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: Guardian Spirit of the Waters
Date: 1888
Medium: Charcoal and chalk on paper
Size: 46.6 x 37.6 cm
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: Perversity
Date: 1891
Medium: Etching
Size: 16 x 12.7 cm (composition); 32.9 x 25.5 cm (sheet)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Artist: Odilon Redon
Title: The Spider
Date: 1903
Medium: Charcoal and black pastel on paper
Size: 49.9 x 35 cm
Location: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA