The Frontispiece to Dans le Rêve is, primarily, an overture to a larger work. It introduces 10 pieces with a common theme of dream imagery and imagination. The portfolio taken as a whole takes its cue from the Göthean idea of genius– i.e., becoming the wellspring of new and original creation. We’re to understand it as some mystical marriage of work and visionary inspiration. With Redon, we get a further expansion of the notion with the addition of “observation.” As I will address at length later, Redon’s fascination with biology and the necessity for imaginative creation to be grounded in observation was an important element of his thought and process.
At only 1/3 of the design space, the illustration on this frontispiece is no less important to consider in looking at Dans le Rêve. A mysterious figure cranes his neck into the picture plane, in sight of the viewer. He rests his hand on a lyre. Figure and lyre stand near the foot of a leafless tree in what appears to be a field of grass. There is suggestion of a distant treeline in the background.
The inclusion of the lyre suggests that we are encountering Orpheus, or at least an Orphic character. Redon revisited the image of Orpheus many times over his career. In Redon’s later works, Orpheus typically is depicted in the penultimate scene of the Orphic cycle: his head has been severed by a group of women and floats down a river- sometimes atop a lyre and other times alone. In at least one image, the head sings despite its decapitated state, in keeping with Orphic tradition. His “integrity” in this image may symbolize the legendary poet in possession of his full faculties, the poet as a young man still. Coincidentally, Redon was, in 1879 when this was published, still quite young in his own cycle of artistic production. He went on to produce artwork for more than thirty subsequent years.
The significance of Orpheus being the figurative greeter of the viewer to le Rêve is interesting because it commends the visionary, lyrical, and inventive nature of the work that succeeds this frontispiece. Orpheus, the mythological father of poetry, verse, music, and the mystical aspect of the arts is an excellent and appropriate piece of foreshadowing. We might even see Orpheus here as Redon, the lithographs that ensue being the mystical poetry of a lyricist.
In one of the most moving passages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, in the wake of Orpheus’ fiancée Eurydice becoming lost in Hades, he sits himself down by the river and begins a song so profound and poignant that every living thing in earshot is drawn to his side. Even the trees are called by his song and walk themselves to hear him better. The barrenness of the tree next to the central figure of this frontispiece suggests winter- the season of dormancy and repose- as if we are being called to the time of slumber and dream.