The Cyclops By Odilon Redon: A Different Way To See the Beast

The Cyclops by Odilon Redon cover image

‘The Cyclops’ by Odilon Redon is a painting that changes the way we see these mythical monsters. Cyclops, if you are unaware, are one-eyed giants from the Greek mythology.

Cyclops are not monsters per se, but these creatures are not civilized. They are savages and there’s an entire race of them. What you need to know is that if there was a Cyclops somewhere, it would be better to avoid it. 

But the painting ‘The Cyclops’ by Odilon Redon puts a different light on these savage creatures. If you find the painting to be bizarre, then you should see Redon’s other works. 

The artist is no stranger to strange paintings, and in many ways, the strangeness of composition and structure is what makes his paintings stand out. 

Structure of ‘The Cyclops’

Since Redon was a symbolist, the painting has all the elements of a dreamscape; The background is just a mesh of different colors, and the sky has patches of different shades. 

While you can understand the background and make out where the sky is, where the hill starts, and the rough structure of the flowers, nothing is sharp or concrete; just like the visuals of a dream. 

The painting’s structure makes it look like a dream that is just about to collapse. But the structure is the secondary subject of the painting. The primary subjects are the woman sleeping and the giant behind the hill. 

The Cyclops by Odilon Redon

You can see the head and the shoulder of the giant Cyclops looking at the woman sleeping with his single eye. While the expression and look of the Cyclops do show him to be a savage, he does not look violent at all.

Apart from the structure, the use of bright colors near the hill to represent the flowers and the pale and discolored sky creates a powerful contrast. It adds excitement and tension to the painting. 

The Subjects of the Painting: The Giant and the Lady

Let’s come to the most important elements of the painting; the cyclops and the sleeping lady. The artist is not showing any cyclops or lady; the painting is depicting a scene from the mythological stories of Greece.

The cyclops shown here is Polyphemus and the lady sleeping amongst the flowers is Galathea or Galatea, a Nereid. Nereids were the 50 daughters of the God Nereis. 

Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon and Thoosa and he was one of the most famous Cyclops. Known for his savage nature and a taste for human flesh, seeing this beast with a different expression seems a bit jarring. 

Polyphemus is spying on Galatea while she sleeps. He is clearly in love with her. What makes this painting so bizarre is the way the subjects are depicted. 

The cyclops does not look like the cyclopes we are used to seeing; the mouth is just a darker groove near his chin, almost all of the face is taken by the eye, and the head is very tiny compared to the ears. 

This bizarre representation enhances the ‘dreamy’ (or nightmarish) appearance of the painting. We can see that the cyclopes cannot talk or understand anything. But we do know what he is feeling. 

There is an air of creepiness with the way he is looking at this sleeping, naked woman. Even the woman can be barely seen in the mess of colors. Everything is convoluted here. 

The proportions are completely off; the mountain is large, yet the giant is larger than the mountain.

There is no sense of distance or depth of field. The two-dimension nature (and the poor shadows and highlights done purposefully) add to the effect of uneasiness. 

The Two Subjects in the Painting

Story of Polyphemus and Galatea

As we mentioned before, the artist has depicted a scene from Greek mythology in this painting. 

Polyphemus loved Galatea. Galatea knew that. Polyphemus confessed his love for her, even saying that he “submits” to her alone. But Galatea was in love with someone else. 

One day, while Polyphemus is singing a song about how much he loves her, she and Acis (her lover) are hiding behind a rock. In the song, it is revealed how proud Polyphemus is of his large eye. 

But in the end, the giant discovers the two, becomes infuriated, and attacks them. Galatea, being a sea nymph, jumps into the sea. But Acis is not so lucky. He gets crushed by Polyphemus. 

Galatea later changes the dead Acis into the Spirit of the Sicilian River Acis. 

There are different versions of the story, many of which Polyphemus and Galatea marry. But Greek mythology is not the topic of the article. 

The Essence of ‘The Cyclops’

So what is the artist trying to show the viewers through this painting? There is no hidden meaning or motif behind this painting. It is just the representation of a scene from Greek mythology in the style of Odilon Redon.

Redon’s work focuses a lot on the eyes. He uses them as a powerful tool to drive meaning to different contexts.

Here the eye shows the love this giant has for the woman, but at the same time, it shows his lack of knowledge and skills. He is shown as more of a beast than a spawn of Gods.

The other thing to note is how the Cyclops is not only looking at Galatea but also at the viewers. The eye looks at you, and you stare into it. It adds to the uncomfortable feeling. 

A sense of fear, uneasiness, mystery, and confusion is what the painting aims to deliver and it succeeds in doing that. 

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