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.
Myself: Portrait Landscape
This painting marked the beginning of the series of outdoor portraits that Rousseau defined as “portrait-landscapes”, a genre that he proudly claimed to have invented. It was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1890 where it certainly did not go unnoticed. Although it aroused ironic comments it did consecrate Rousseau as “artiste-peintre.” His profession is clearly revealed by the accessories in the self-portrait: palette, beret and brush, while certain details in the landscape clearly define the city of Paris: the bridge over the Seine, the roofs and chimneys, while others allude to the 1889 Universal Exposition: the colored flags on the large anchored ship, the Eiffel Tower and the balloon in the blue sky. On the palette we read: “Clémente et Joséphine,” the names of the artist’s first and second wives, the latter (Joséphine) was probably added after their marriage in 1899. Even the badge in the buttonhole seems to have been added later; it is the symbol of the Ecole Philotechnqiue where he began teaching in 1901. In this early work we can already see the outlines of Rousseau’s art which would not undergo any particular stylistic or thematic developments during his career. The flat drawing with colors as pure as enamel (though here they are particularly subdued), the lack of geometric perspective, the solid and simplified structures are the fruit of his self-teaching, but they fit into the context of modern painting. It is said that when Gauguin saw this painting he exclaimed: “This is the truth […] the future […]. This is the quintessence of painting.”
Portrait of Pierre Loti
Pierre Loti (1850-1923) was a French writer famous for his love of the Far East that he described with great clarity in his novels. Perhaps it was shared desire to escape to exotic, fantastic worlds that attracted Rousseau, in addition to his election to the Academie Française in 1891 that was widely reported by the press, that induced him to paint the writer’s portrait. Even if the full frontal view of Loti seems to allude to fifteenth century Flemish portraits. It is most likely that Rousseau had never met the writer in person and selected this pose because he copied it from some published photograph. The decision to paint him wearing a fez must be linked to the writer’s success with his book Air Maroc, while the cat is explained by Loti’s well known affection for the animal. Due to the several re-paintings (the crowns of the trees and face) it is difficult to date it with certainty, but the post quem point could be 1891 when the newspapers were all talking about Loti. From a letter conserved at the Kunsthaus in Zurich we do know that doubts arose as to the subject’s identity when E. Franck said that he recognized himself in the painting – a rather unlikely hypothesis since, in 1911, he himself had destroyed the portrait Rousseau had painted of him in 1901-1902.
This large canvas, that was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1894 with the caption “it passes frightening, leaving desperation, tears and ruin everywhere” was the most ambitious piece, in terms of invention and execution that Rousseau had done to date. A disheveled girl, personification of War dominates humanity astride a black horse, spreading death with iron and fire. On the battlefield are the wounded and swollen dead bodies already prey to voracious crows. The ground is dry, the branches of the trees are broken, the leaves blackened and the paint is flat and daring based on use of violet, bold colors such as black, white and pink that render the dramatic nature of the event without recourse to narrative elements. It is an evil tale, a nightmare, perhaps a distant memory of the 1871 civil war between the city of Paris and the government at Versailles. The most direct iconographic source could be the picture in the feuilleton The Tsar that appeared in “Egalité” on 6 October 1899 and then on the 27th in “Courrier Français” or as shown even better, in the autographed lithograph published in “Ymagier” in January 1895. Actually, Rousseau’s painting, that met with great success, translates all the iconographic suggestions including those in the Medieval paintings in the Louvre, Paolo Uccello, classic sculpture and Géricault in a grotesque, “primitive” inner vision with effects that are precursors of “magic realism.” Painted during the winter of 1893-94 the piece disappeared for fifty years; it turned up in Louviers, in 1944 owned by L. Angue. The Louvre purchased it from the owner E. Mignon in 1946 and then it was transferred to the Musée d’Orsay.
Portrait of a Woman
This painting is known mainly for the famous “banquet Rousseau” a 1908 reception held in honor of the artist at Bateau Lavoir to celebrate Picasso’s purchase of this portrait. Picasso had found it in a junk shop and bought it for five francs. The party that soon degenerated into a drunken brawl was attended by the elderly artist and the Parisian intellectual avant-garde, from Apollinaire to the Steins, to Braque, Salmon and Max Jacob all of whom agreed that Rousseau was an extraordinary interpreter of modernity. The large woman stands in a frontal pose along with some items from her daily life: a balcony, pansies and other flowers in vases, a strange branch in her hand and a tent that has been recognized as one of those ornaments period photographers placed behind their clients. This leads to the hypothesis that the painting may have been inspired by a photograph. As in his other post-1890 works, the paint is “flat” rather than in “brushstrokes” with black dominating the canvas. In spite of the “realistic” inspiration emphasized by the domestic setting, the atmosphere is immobile and unreal, the light is lacking both shadows and source to the extent that it anticipates some of the Surrealists’ technical and figurative solutions.
The Sleeping Gypsy
Notwithstanding the clearly legible signature and date of 1897 in the lower right, for many years there were real doubts as to whether this painting had indeed been done by Rousseau. He showed at the 1897 Salon des Indépendants along with other works. After the exhibit the painting disappeared and was identified in 1935 by the critic Louis Vauxcelles thanks to an 1898 letter to the mayor of Laval in which the painter tried to convince him to purchase a painting of a “black wanderer, a mandolin payer with a jar at her side, weary and sleeping. A lion passes by chance, sniffs but does not devour her. It is a very poetic moon effect. The scene is set in a dry desert,. The gypsy wears eastern clothes.” Rousseau’s words lacking any intellectual or philosophical intent seem to summarize the true essence of his art: the creation of an imaginary, unreal, almost magical space through a spontaneous, linear and “ingenuous” figuration. The charm of this painting that is quite removed from the probable model traced to Gérome’s Two Majesties lies in the meeting of the two components, the exotic and fabulous with the formal, simple and synthetic as characterized by the purity of lines and contours. It is no accident that the painting was praised by De Chirico, Dali and above all, by the master of surrealism, Jean Cocteau who reviewed it with words that poetically render its profound essence: From where does something like this come? From the moon…Besides, there is perhaps a reason why the painter, who never forgot a single detail, did not draw even a single footprint around the sleeping feet. The gypsy never came to the place: she is there and not there. She is not in a place of human features.”
The Repast of the Lion
Often, the wild beasts inhabiting Rousseau’s jungles seem to be small significant details amidst huge plants. The enigmatic and surreal atmosphere of these imaginary places enchanted many twentieth century avant-garde artists – even the most traditionalist De Chirico who reproduced Le douanier’s Self-Portrait-Landscape in a 1915 sketch. Even though he did not want to acknowledge Rousseau’s influence on his works, some paintings such as Lion and Lioness (1926-1927) or Gladiator and Lion (1927) do recall the beasts in Rousseau’s jungles and their unique irrational, magical and timeless atmosphere. The theme of this canvas is identical to the famous 1905 The Hungry Lion that was displayed at the III Salon d’Automne near Matisse, Braque, Roualt and Derain and aroused strong reactions in the press. It was perhaps on that occasion when Louis Vauxcelles defined the salon as “la cage aux fauves” (the cage of the beasts” that the term “fauves” began to be applied to some of those artists. Compared to the 1905 painting, this one is more complex in the arrangement of the plants and is a prelude to the later Jungle paintings.
Representatives of Foreign Powers Arriving to Hail the Republic as a Sign of Peace
Shown at the 1907 Salon des Indépendants, this painting portrays a scene that seems based on a photograph of official ceremonies. Perhaps its intention was to celebrate the new French republic (that followed the II Empire and the Commune of 1871) and the French nation’s desire for peace as symbolized the olive branches held by the various heads of state and in the vases in the foreground, each inscribed with “Travail,” “Liberté,” “Fraternité.” Among the sovereigns and heads of the various countries, including Asian and African nations, beneath a flag-bedecked canopy we can recognize Tsar Nicholas II (in the light uniform), the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph (the white-haired old man behind the tsar), the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III (the shortest in the group) who pay tribute to the French Republic with the Phrygian cap and shield who is about to crown one of the characters (perhaps the president of France, Armand Fallières who had been elected in 1906). In the 1910 interview with Alexandre Rousseau recalled that the people who had scene the painting at the Salon des Indépendants had rushed to shake his hand: “And you know why? Because it was the moment of the conference at The Hague [the 1907 Peace Conference] and I hadn’t thought of it.” The general atmosphere of the painting is quite naïf, in the rendering of the city’s background and in the portraits of the individual statesmen who are grouped on one side like flattened figurines. Rousseau may have been thinking of the academic Reception of the Ambassadors from Siam at the Château de Fontainebleau by Gérome, to the point that he hoped his own canvas would be purchased by the government. Actually, Picasso found it in a junk shop in 1910.
The Snake Charmer
Displayed at the Salon d’Automne in 1907 along with three other landscapes this is one of Rousseau’s finest works. The exotic theme is resolved in a complex landscape with several, overlapping planes and the unusual lunar light hits the plants and is reflected on the water. The idea of such an extraordinary painting where the black snake charmer is particularly mysterious and seductive comes from a commission received from Robert Delaunay’s mother. During the summer of 1907 she told him about her travels to India and then decided to order a painting that would evoke those exotic memories. The dark figure, as opposed to many of his other paintings, is not reduced to the miniscule and lives in harmony with the surrounding animals. The plants along the river or pond are proportioned and plausible in size. After Mme Delaunay’s death the painting went to her son, Robert, and daughter-in-law, Sonia. In 1922 they were forced to sell, but since they were well aware of its importance they offered it to the famous dressmaker and collector Jacques Doucet under they condition that it be bequeathed to the Louvre. Encouraged by André Breton, Doucet did indeed purchase it and today it is one of the jewels in the Musée d’Orsay.
The Muse Inspiring the Poet II
The painting, that fits into the series of the portrait-landscapes is the second version (the first, also dated 1909, is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow) of the double portrait of the poet Apollinaire with his inspiring muse, the artist Marie Laurencin with whom he had a sentimental relationship at the time. In the transition from the first to the second version, along with changes in the subjects’ faces there are major, though not very obvious, modifications in the plants – especially the flowers in the foreground which were gillyflowers instead of carnations, but their purpose was primarily to correct the perspective of the feet and tree trunks. Rousseau had met Apollinaire in 1906 via the writer Alfred Jarry and when he was doing the portrait had created a huge “file” in which we can see all the phases of the painting and comprehend Rousseau’s methods that are also confirmed by Apollinaire’s direct recollections: “…he measured my nose, mouth, ears, forehead, hands and whole body and then very diligently transferred the measurement to the canvas after having reduced them to the proportions of the canvas. During all that time, since posing is a great bore, he would sing songs of his youth to amuse me.”
Horse Attacked by a Jaguar
The renowned art dealer A. Vollard purchased this painting for one hundred francs and then it made its way to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It fits readily into the series of Jungles and in particular the Virgin Forest that dates from the same year. The scene is actually a bit grotesque due to the total lack of drama. As usual, it is immersed in the tangle of plants where there are but few flowers and very little color – with the exception of the red-orange of the jaguar and flowers and the gray-white of the astounded horse – breaks up the monotony of the greens. The jaguar, that is flat and seen from the rear as it attacks the horse probably replaced the lion from the first concept of the painting as we learn from a letter that Rousseau wrote to Vollard in which he said that he was about to paint a “battle between a horse and lion.” The two animals do not seem to be in harmony with the surrounding plants that are too big and tangled. The overall sensation is one of cold abstraction and a faux, unreal scene. As Robert Delaunay wrote in 1920: “Rousseau belongs alongside of those masters who heralded modern art (…). For him the painting was a surface onto which he projected his thoughts composed of plastic elements.”
This, the last masterpiece of his career was exhibited at the 1910 Salon des Indépendants and was described by his friend Apollinaire: “…A completely nude woman is sleeping on an 1830 divan. All around there are tropical plants inhabited by monkeys and birds of paradise and while a lion and lioness pass calmly, a Negro – a mysterious figure plays the flute.” The divan, to the astonishment of his contemporaries, was a realistic detail for Rousseau. In a letter to the critic A. Dupont he wrote: “The woman on the divan is dreaming about being transported to the forest, listening to the sound of the instrument played by the snake charmer. This explains the presence of the settee in this painting.” Actually, the de-contextualized divan holds a metaphysical and surrealistic charm that is increased by the complexity of the tropical landscape that the artist needed fifty different shades of green to render. In line with the nineteenth century French trends of Delacroix, Ingres and even Gauguin, Rousseau systematically painted exotic scenes from 1904 to 1910. They were heralded as early as 1891 in his spectacular canvas Surprise. In addition to illustrations in books and albums he drew his inspiration from the exotic plants he saw in the greenhouses of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris as he revealed in an interview. The woman in The Dream in the pose of Goya’s Maja desnuda certainly has a references to Manet’s Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
The small central group that is almost swallowed by the immensity of the lush forest is based on an album page dedicated to wild beasts (Bêtes Sauvages) that belonged to the artist, and contained a photo entitled Young Jaguar with a Guardian. The complex structure of the space and the distribution of the planes created by the plants lead to a later dating for the painting, like the jungle pictures he did after 1907. According to Ardengo Soffici, who had met Rousseau in Paris between 1903 and 1910, in order to paint the green grids populated by monkeys and ferocious animals, the artist outlined all the tropical plants in pencil and then applied twenty-two shades of green, one at a time, cleaning the palette for each one. The leaves (oak, cactus, palm, agave and others) had been gathered in forests and gardens and the artist collected them in his studio where he carefully copied them on the canvas one by one. These lush and “abstract” landscapes interested not only the post-Impressionist avant-garde, but also the Art Nouveau and Cubist painters and certainly not because of their meticulous realism. The shapes and volumes are intuitive, the light and colors unreal and the perspective wrong: as the avant-gardes gained ground the attempt at precise realism in rendering nature unconsciously, but “officially” became part of the definition of “modernity.”