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Henri Rousseau

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Rousseau in His Time

"A problem persists with regard to the Douanier Rousseau. Admired by artists at the turn of the century (Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Constantin Brancusi, and others), and defended by the same writers (led by Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars) who defended them, he is still difficult to fit into what we call modern art. Thus in 1918, after having cited the precursors of Cubism and modern painting, Amedee Ozenfant and C. E. Jeanneret (who was not yet calling himself Le Corbusier) stated: "No need to include among [them] the Douanier Rousseau, one of the most charming painters of the period, for his art was purely traditional."' A similar judgment was handed down by Ribemont Dessaignes, who was active in the Dada movement:
"The emergence of Rousseau is an isolated fact separate from the day to day development of art; Rousseau's painting is totally foreign to every contemporary school, whether oldfashioned or avant garde."
And even Philippe Soupault, who was passionately devoted to Rousseau, refused to place his work in historical perspective. Tristan Tzara, however, equally devoted to the Douanier, was able to analyze his work more acutely and to understand the role it played in twentieth century art.

"Such an equivocal situation obviously arises out of the singularity of Rousseau's work and the lack of precedents for it. Also responsible, perhaps, is Rousseau's ambiguous personality, to which we shall return. There persists even today an error in historical perspective regarding his precise chronological position: we tend to forget that Rousseau was not the contemporary of his admirers. Born in 1844, he was very little younger than Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, and Odilon Redon; his contemporaries were L. 0. Merson, B. Constant, and Fernand Cormon, all born in 1845. His true contemporary in pictorial adventure is Paul Gauguin, only four years his junior, who like him began as a Sunday painter and became an artist with a "belated vocation." Neither began painting in his personal style until sometime around 1885. Of course such a parallel cannot be drawn out indefinitely Gauguin's artistic quest was more calculated, methodical, and rapid than was Rousseau's; however, innumerable relationships can be discerned between the two bodies of work. It has long been noted that Rousseau was indebted to Gauguin, whose canvases he had many opportunities to see.

"Notwithstanding the misleading nature of some of his own statements, Rousseau's art cannot be defined by the greater or lesser degree of clumsiness with which he assimilated academic procedures. He did of course attempt to conquer Albertian perspective and to give an illusion of it, primarily in his urban landscapes. In the years around 1890, however, was that really the problem? If traditional perspective and modeling had been rejected, first by Edouard Manet and then by Cezanne, Monet, Georges Seurat, and Gauguin, it was because they realized that such procedures had reached a dead end. Unlike Rousseau, however, they had earlier served their apprenticeships; they had, to varying degrees, acquired the needed skills. Rousseau followed them and, consciously or not, he benefited from the work they had done. In the last years of the century, painters and the more enlightened critics realized that it was no longer necessary to master Albertian perspective to express themselves. The deed, of course, preceded the word, and theoretical writings on the subject are few and far between. However, why should Rousseau be excluded from this great purgative task, one that was not destructive in its effects but, rather, aimed at the elaboration of new languages to take the place of a dying tradition? As early as the first Jungle of 1891 (Surprise!) and in many of the portraits painted around 1900 we can discern methods close to those of Gauguin and the Nabis. It is after 1900, however, and principally in his exotic compositions, that Rousseau evidences his mastery of a formal language that no longer owes anything to traditional methods. Many critics, even those not fond of Rousseau, have quite rightly evoked Persian, Japanese, or medieval models when writing of his Jungle pictures. Are those sumptuous vegetal decors, in which the spread of fantastic greenery is punctuated by marvelous, multicolored flowers, a reminiscence of the so called mille fleurs tapestries of the late Middle Ages that he might have seen in his youth in Angers, or in Paris at the Musee de Cluny? Perhaps. Such vegetation, at once dense and without depth, with the thick foliage of the Barbizon school (although without the clever interspersal of vistas), and far removed from the Impressionists' airy landscapes, may not, however, be particular to Rousseau. A survey of pictorial production around 1900 would in fact reveal many other comparable examples in Gauguin, of course, in late Cezanne, and in the younger generation, Picasso, Fernand Leger, and Raoul Dufy.

"Around 1890, in and around Paris but most of all in the vicinity of Aix en Provence, Cezanne, had begun to paint skyless, horizonless clearings in the woods. Monet's earliest Waterlilies, with their profuse, invasive vegetation, were exhibited in 1900. Although somewhat later, Redon's frescoes at the Abbaye de Fontfroide (1910-11) are in a way the logical extension of his earlier work. In all these examples and confining ourselves to artists of Rousseau's own generation we find painters expressing the same desire: to depart from nature to create a pictorial fact, leading them to the limits of the imagination, abandoning the problems of depth and perspective. Man is excluded, but the profusion, richness, and eternal springtime of their flora endows them with a pantheistic significance that is far different from the earthbound horizons of the Barbizon school or the dainty settings for Impressionist outings; this pantheistic feeling is especially powerful in the late Waterlilies and in Cezanne.

"Outside France, in the work of Gustav Klimt or Augusto Giacometti, for instance, it is possible to find other examples of flat vegetal decor that invades the entire surface of the painting. Nor should we overlook the achievements of Art Nouveau in the area of applied arts. Yet must we revive the somewhat tired notion of influence, fix exact dates, and verify opportunities for actually seeing works or photographs? Those might be useful pursuits were it a question of a particular borrowing, but is it necessary for a convergence of related phenomena? Rousseau could have seen such and such a work, particularly at the Salon des Independants where he showed regularly and at which he must have been a sedulous visitor. Did he see the Cezanne exhibition at Vollard's in 1895; did he frequent Durand Ruel or Bernheim Jeune? For a man like Rousseau, alert to the visual world, a man whose entire output reveals an intense drive for renewal, the glimpse of a few works, the decor of a facade or designed paper, some engraving, any isolated impulse, could have sufficed to capture his attention and inspire a meditation, conscious or unconscious, on the problems of his craft. There are more than twenty Jungle paintings, almost all of which are large in scale. Even taking into account the uncertainties of their chronology, most of them can still be dated post 1904; their production, interspersed with the execution of other, often large scale, works, was thus something around four per year. Whether out of a process of slow ripening or sudden intuition, Rousseau found and at once mastered a landscape formula that enabled him fully to express himself and at the same time to resolve or circumvent technical problems that had hitherto held him back.

"The profusion of tropical vegetation also reflects another of Rousseau's desires. This impecunious suburbanite, aware that he had led an unadventurous life, was through the evocation of the "incredible floridas" of Arthur Rimbaud's visions to satisfy his own need for dream, for escape the same escape Rimbaud and Gauguin had sought in flight and revolt; that Pierre Loti (whose portrait Rousseau painted c. 1891) was to realize in the conformist career of naval officer and celebrated novelist; that Redon, Gustave Moreau, Fantin Latour, and Stephane Mallarme would find by taking refuge in their inner worlds, Monet beside his pond, Cezanne opposite his mountain.


"Although our image of the Douanier Rousseau is linked to his Jungles now popularized even in song his repertoire of subjects is much richer. At the end of the nineteenth century, when nearly every artist, whether academic or innovative, confined himself to a few subjects, Rousseau's work covered a broad range: still life, genre paintings, individual or group portraits, historical scenes. He even provided a strange collection of farm and domestic animals. Perhaps this should be regarded as another form of escape for a city dweller. In Rousseau's day there were still many farms in the Parisian suburbs. The painter showed an equal originality in the sphere of portrait landscapes, which he claimed to have invented: as in The Muse Inspiring the Poet, his portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin, flowers are detailed with a botanical care that is almost unique at this period.

"As for the city landscape, for Rousseau it forms a kind of counterpoint to the exotic landscape. After Charles Meryon and Gustave Caillebotte and at the same time as Camille Pissarro and Maximilien Luce, he was imbuing banal modern urban vistas with grace and poetry. He was also fond of colorless suburban neighborhoods, and he unhesitatingly used determinedly modern motifs in his pictures, for example factory chimneys in Chair Factory (c. 1897). In this he had few predecessors other than Seurat and Cezanne, (in the Views of L'Estaque). But whereas Cezanne, evidenced little taste for modernism and is said to have complained about the installation of streetlights and the "biped invasion" at L'Estaque, Seurat on several occasions used streetlights to give rhythm to his compositions, investigated artificial lighting, and painted The Eiffel Tower, the first and for a long time the only painter to dare do so. All these motifs, save for the artificial light, were to be taken up by Rousseau as well. And if Robert Delaunay chose the Eiffel Tower (The City of Paris), still an object of loathing in some art circles, as his symbol of modernity and one of the bases for his experiments with form, he owed the idea in part to Rousseau (Myself Portrait Landscape, 1890), of whom he was a great admirer. There are other examples of Rousseau's consistent taste for subjects that represented technological innovations, the most spectacular being his many paintings of airplanes and dirigibles, which he set in the Parisian sky (The Quay of Ivry and The Fisherman and the Biplane); here, too, he was followed by Robert Delaunay, as well as by La Fresnaye.

"There is a fundamental difference between the significations of the two categories of landscape. The Jungles almost always have the look of impenetrable grills, or screens, before which the conflict unrolls; whereas the pictures of city or suburb are open landscapes through which peaceful strollers promenade. Rousseau's landscapes are filled to an obsessive degree with means of communication: streets, country paths, bridges, vehicles, and, more original, balloons and airplanes. Rivers, nearly absent from the tropical landscapes, appear in almost all the suburban views of Paris. When he creates populated scenes he reconciles social classes (A Hundred Years of Independence, 1892, La Carmag nole, 1898) or States (Representative of Foreign Powers arriving to Hail the Republic as a Sign of Peace). The repeated presence of two of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's colossal sculptures, the Statue of Liberty and the Lion of Belfort, is surely not without significance. Both statues had a precise political meaning: Liberty, in New York harbor, stressing the ideal community between the two Republics, France and America, at a time when most countries were living under monarchies, and the Lion, located in Paris, recalling the defense of Belfort, an heroic episode from the 1870 Franco Prussian War. Similarly, there can be nothing fortuitous about the continual recurrence of the three national colors (and sometimes only the two, blue and red, of the City of Paris).

"Contrary to popular belief, Rousseau was hardly uneducated; secondary studies, even when uncompleted, were in his day the accomplishments of the minority. He ended his formal education filled with the zeal of a man believing in the virtues of science and progress. He filled his teaching post at the Philotechnic Association in the same spirit; we also know that he was interested in the political life of his quartier and that he was a Freemason. His two extant plays (the manuscript of the third appears to be lost) are written in an easy style. In short, Rousseau's level of education was higher than average for petty civil servants at the time and very much on a par with that of other artists, J. F. Millet for example. Can we go further? The liberated fantasy of certain of his compositions, his unique expression of dream and the irrational, the pantheism of his Jungles, all recall trends of thought prevalent in his day. There is no question of turning Rousseau into a reader of Lautreamont, a disciple of Sar Peladan or Eliphas Levy, or into a frequenter of Symbolist or Decadent cenacles. Did he even know the names of Mallarme or Huysmans? We do not know, but on the other hand, why reject any coincidence between Rousseau's outlook and that of many other artists and writers (some of whom acted as critics at the Salons) who were opening windows to air out the stuffy prosiness of the period? He too was "tired of this antique world."

"Once again we must face the problem of Rousseau's unique personality. Was he the simple naif intoxicated by his belated success and the compliments of his admirers described for us by some of his earliest biographers? There can be no doubt that his behavior often evidenced a kind of naivete, not to say obliviousness for example, in the rash acts (the adjective is a mild one) that led him into the courtroom. However, on that occasion his very "naivete" served him well in the outcome of his trial, and we may wonder whether he was not wisely playing the fool. In the end, our overriding impression is of a certain finesse, of a sometimes clumsy trickiness, but also of a stubborn courage in pursuing and "improving" his work, and, thus, of an indifference to anything that did not touch upon that work. His letters, which constitute the most serious testimony to his state of mind, are explicit in this regard. Andre Malraux noted in Rousseau "the type of childlike but cunning power that poets often have".

- From "Rousseau in His Time", by Michel Hoog, in "Henri Rousseau"

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Henri Rousseau Images

1886 A Carnival Evening
1889 Rendezvous in the Forest
1891 Surprise!
1890 Myself, Portrait-Landscape
1894 War, or Discord on Horseback
c. 1895 Portrait of a Woman
c. 1895-97 Portrait of a Woman
after 1896 The Boat in the Storm
1897 The Sleeping Gypsy
c. 1898 La Tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower)
1903 Self-portrait of the Artist with a Lamp
1903 Portrait of the Artist's Second Wife with a Lamp
1904 Scout Attacked by a Tiger (Eclaireur attaque par un tigre)
1905 Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest
1905-06 Liberty Inviting Artists to Take Part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Societe des Artistes Independants
1905-06 Portrait of Pierre Loti
c. 1906 The Merry Jesters
1907 The Flamingoes
1907 The Repast of the Lion
1907 The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace
1907 The Snake Charmer
1908 Exotic Landscape
1908 Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo
1908 The Football Players
1909 Bouquet of Flowers with an Ivy Branch
1909 Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo
1909 Portrait of Joseph Brummer
1910 Bouquet of Flowers
1910 The Dream

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