Le Douanier Rousseau
By CG Hughes
In 1893, at the age of 49, Henri-Jean Rousseau (French, 1848 - 1910) retired from his position at the octroi of Paris to devote himself to painting. His naive pictures of mysterious happenings in hallucinatory, exotic settings would become touchstones for the Surrealists but in the later 19th century they were objects of ridicule. Picasso bought one of Rousseau’s paintings from a junk dealer for a few francs in 1898.
Tags: henri-jean rousseau, art primitif, le douanier rousseau, pablo picasso, gertrude stein, banquet rousseau, le bâteau-lavoir, andré salmon
NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!
The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.
For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.
Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!
In 1893, at the age of 49, Henri-Jean Rousseau (French, 1848 - 1910) retired from his position at the octroi of Paris to devote himself to painting.
He had by then obtained a carte de copiste at the Louvre, exhibited at the unjuried Salon des Indépendants every year since 1886, and received words of advice from Gérôme and Bouguereau. His naive pictures of mysterious happenings in hallucinatory, exotic settings would become touchstones for the Surrealists but in the later 19th century they were objects of ridicule. Picasso bought one of Rousseau’s paintings from a junk dealer for a few francs in 1898.
Snake Charmer, 1903
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
La Bohème Endormie, 1897
New York, Museum of Modern Art
The bad publicity brought Rousseau admirers as well.
When the autodidact was feted at the banquet Rousseau, convened in his honor at Picasso’s Bateau-Lavoir studio in 1908, his reputation as honorary father of the avant-garde was confirmed by Apollinaire, Braque, Laurencin, Salmon, and Stein.
At the banquet’s conclusion, the drunken guest offered un éloge to his host: “Nous sommes les deux plus grands peintres de l'époque, toi dans le genre égyptien, moi dans le genre moderne.”*
* We are the two greatest painters of the time, said Rousseau: you in the Egyptian genre, me in the modern genre.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), 1891
London, National Gallery of Art.
Rendez-vous in the Forest, 1886
Not From Life
Rousseau did not paint from life. He never left France and the lush jungle vegetation and wild beasts of his paintings are entirely imaginary, based on exhibits at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and on images from the popular press.
His animals all have taxidermist’s eyes His lack of familiarity with subject matter combined with his eccentric painting technique–all canvases painted strictly from top to bottom, one color at a time–created the flattened, angular, and oddly expressive style that Picasso saw as an antecedent to his own pre-Cubist painting.
The Eiffel Tower, 1898
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts
A Carnival Evening, 1886
Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Finally, as the Portrait of Jules Roc shows, (next Note) Rousseau was a more adept painter before he gained notoriety as a primatif.
Aware of the public’s conception of his art, he adapted his style to a certain extent to attract critical attention where he could. The effort to be bad gave rise to oddly disjunctive images.
Amidst the ungainly weirdness and camp, in pictures like the Snake Charmer or the Sleeping Gypsy, one comes across unexpected passages of painterly suavity and decorative brilliance. Paintings like the Carnival Evening are seductive while portraits of mandrilles mugging for the camera repel viewers.
Portrait of Jules Roc, 1890
Paris, Musée d'Orsay
African Attacked by a Jaguar, 1910
The Dream, 1907
New York, Museum of Modern Art
Rousseau’s stylistic devolution was driven by market forces, not alienation or disconnection from the social.
This raises questions about his alleged naïveté, and the validity of the category of critically-acclaimed outsider art in general.
In conjunction with the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, the Musée d'Orsay has mounted the exhibition, Le Douanier Rousseau: le naïf archaïque, at the Palazzo Ducale. Running from 6 March - 5 July 2015, the exhibition coincides with the 56th Venice Biennale.