Le Douanier Rousseau cover

Le Douanier Rousseau

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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





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Le Douanier Rousseau

Henri-Jean Rousseau

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

Snake Charmer, 1903

Paris, Musée d’Orsay

La Bohème Endormie, 1897

La Bohème Endormie, 1897

New York, Museum of Modern Art

Publicity

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

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), 1891

London, National Gallery of Art.

Rendez-vous in the Forest, 1886

Rendez-vous in the Forest, 1886

Zürich, Kunsthaus

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.

Flamingoes, 1907

Flamingoes, 1907

Private Collection

The Eiffel Tower, 1898

The Eiffel Tower, 1898

Houston, Museum of Fine Arts

A Carnival Evening, 1886

A Carnival Evening, 1886

Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Public Conception

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

Portrait of Jules Roc, 1890

Paris, Musée d'Orsay

African Attacked by a Jaguar, 1910

African Attacked by a Jaguar, 1910

Kunstmuseum Basel

The Dream, 1907

The Dream, 1907

New York, Museum of Modern Art

Raised Questions

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.

False Start

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