Art e Dossier

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Art History

Henri Rousseau : biography

Henri Rousseau was born in Laval 1944, son of a middle class family. He left home quite early to enlist in the infantry in 1863 to avoid being sent to a reformatory for having stolen a few francs from an attorney’s office for which he served one month in the Pré Pigeon prison. After having worked as a clerk for a court officer and served in the Franco-Prussian War in 1970 he obtained a job at the Paris toll office (and not at the customs house as his nickname, le douanier, the customshouse officer, would lead to believe). He would leave his job in 1885 at the age of forty to dedicate his life to painting. In 1884 he received permission to copy paintings in the Louvre and began to attend painting classes held by Gérome and Clément. His first showings at the Salon des Indépendants were met with ridicule on the part of the critics. The first to understand how greatly those fantastic apparently ingenuous, and “primitive” visions expressed uncommon genius and purity of approach to painting were some young artists such ad Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin, Robert Delaunay, Picasso and the great poet, Apollinaire. Picasso, his enthusiastic supporter organized a banquet in 1908 to honor his friend. The event was memorable because it was attended by most of the artists and intellectuals who lived and worked in Paris. Rousseau’s paintings created a primitive and exotic figuration lacking spatial relations and perspective, starting from a detailed rendering of realistic data that acquired an unreal, magical and fabulous dimension. The early landscapes are dry and synthetic and evoke the Italian primitives because of their naiveté. The first of those that he called “portrait-landscapes” was “Myself: Portrait-Landscape” of 1889-1890 that made the critics take him seriously even though they continued to reproach because he was self-taught. In 1893 he met the poet Alfred Jarry who introduced him to the literati of the Mercure de France and Parisian literary cafés. The process of abstraction from the real was to become increasingly evident and deliberate in his portraits such as the beautiful painting of Pierre Loti, 1891 and in his more ambitious works such as War that was distinguished at the 1894 Salon des Indépendants. Other paintings would even influence metaphysical and surrealist painting from De Chirico to Dali because of their immobile atmospheres, unreal illumination, bold colors and mainly the dreamlike, fairytale themes such as The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) or The Dream (1910). The latter, in particular, is part of the famous Jungles series through which Rousseau entered the exotic genre with considerable success. These were to be his most interesting and original works because, beyond the fashion of the theme of French colonial conquests, he painted them, starting in around 1904 with the meticulousness of a botanist that prompted him to study plants at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. One of his most enigmatic paintings was The Snake Charmer (1907) with a primitive flair that definitely recalls Gauguin. As he continued to send his canvases to the Salon des Indépendants every year, Rousseau created sensations with his paintings that that were increasingly considered legitimately to belong to the early XX century modern current, on the threshold of the avant-garde. He began to hold “soirées” in his home that were attended by pupils, friends and artists including the new generation of avant-garde (Picasso, Braque, Delaunay, Brancusi). In 1910, after having shown his latest painting, The Dream, at the Salon he was wounded in a leg and he died of gangrene on 2 September at the Necker hospital in Paris, as told by his friend, Delaunay. Only seven people attended the funeral.

The works