PRINT January 2001


Henri Rousseau

NAÏF, PRIMITIVE, A SUNDAY PAINTER, childlike, a natural—these are some of the words long used to categorize Henri Rousseau and his work. All have been disputed, and none will do alone. But taken together, they give something of the flavor of this extraordinary artist, who possessed one of the most startling pictorial intelligences of his time. Self-taught, ambitious, and longing for official recognition, he emerged nearly fully formed in the mid-1880s. Between 1900 and his death in 1910, Rousseau made some of his most haunting and fantastic paintings. Toward the end of his life, his work was influential and already prized by artists; Picasso, Robert Delaunay, Max Weber, and Kandinsky were among an enthusiastic circle of admirers who acquired his canvases. During the interwar years, Rousseau became a significant presence in the collections of preeminent figures such as Albert Barnes, Paul Guillaume, and Samuel Courtauld. Critics and historians—Clive Bell, Douglas Cooper, Herbert Read, and Daniel Catton Rich—all wrote about Rousseau as a painter of the highest rank. Of course, the eccentric circumstances of his life had a certain news-worthiness, and his work fitted well into the return to “primitive” values witnessed from the fin de siecle through the ’20s. He was a tremendously enjoyable painter, too, if not as universally popular as, say, Utrillo. Prices rocketed and monographs multiplied.

In the last half-century, that enthusiasm has dulled at the edges, and Rousseau, like some great parcel in the Dead Letters Office of art history waits to be reclaimed. The last major exhibition of his work was in 1984-85, a joint venture between the Grand Palais in Paris and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was superbly representative but seems not to have fostered a fresh generation of admirers.

Now the Kunsthalle in Tübingen is adding Rousseau to its already impressive list of one-person shows devoted to such giants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. And to judge from the list of loans this time around, it will be an excellent opportunity to see Rousseau again. Almost inevitably, some of the most famous of his images—The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, at MoMA; the classic self-portrait in Prague; works in the Guillaume Collection at the Orangerie, Paris, and at the Barnes Foundation, in Merion, Pennsylvania (which does not lend)—are missing. Nevertheless, with such major pieces as the paintings from Picasso’s personal collection from his house museum in Paris, the tremendous Jungle: Tiger Attacking a Buffalo, 1908, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the celebrated War, 1894, from the Musée d’Orsay all coming together in I Tübingen with many smaller, less familiar works from public and private collections around the world, the full measure of Rousseau can be gained. Kunsthalle director Götz Adriani has also decided to include works by Léger, Picasso, Beckmann, Kandinsky, and Marc, following up on William Rubin and Carolyn Lanchner’s lengthy investigation of Rousseau’s widespread influence on various painters of the École de Paris and in Germany that appeared in the catalogue to the 1984–85 show. His obsessive individuality and magpie appropriation of sources ensure his continuing appeal.

Rousseau straddles the Post-Impressionist age. Born in 1844, he was a few years younger than Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne but older than van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat. He was familiar with a great span of French painting and was influenced by the pompiers of the official Salon (to whose status he humbly aspired), the soft-porn magic of the Orientalists, and the village landscapes of Corot and Pissarro. In turn, he had already influenced the work of Picasso, Derain, and Delaunay by the time of his death.

From 1886 onward, Rousseau showed regularly at the Salon des Indépendants, although he became a full-time artist only after his retirement in 1893 from the Paris toll service. (Alfred Jarry naughtily bestowed on him the nickname le Douanier, even though Rousseau was a gabelou, or toll collector, not a customs officer.) While he became a familiar presence in avant-garde circles in Paris, he took little notice of the experiments of others, instead solidly cultivating his own limited accomplishments and extraordinary imagination. By sheer artisanal persistence, he managed to find aesthetic solutions to his burning personal vision.

Most self-taught or “primitive” artists tend to stick obsessively to one type of subject; think of the Cornish primitive Alfred Wallis, “discovered” by Ben Nicholson. Not so Rousseau. He moves between public events in contemporary life and scenes of animal violence in impossible rainforests, turns from Sunday-best portraits to mythological extravaganzas, and shifts from vases of flowers to views of unremarkable corners of the Paris suburbs. All his subjects are stamped with a stubborn awkwardness of drawing, which is eloquent in effort and dignity. His lack of mastery of perspective and recession forced him into low relief and stark frontality. He loved patterns with childish delight—stripes, spots, the repeated fronds of exotic flora, and the parallel metal struts of biplanes in the sky.

In order to authenticate the jungle pictures, Rousseau put it about that he had done his national military service in Mexico. In fact, he never set foot outside France, and the tropical fauna and flora of these works were culled from illustrated books, photographs, and visits to the Jardin des Plantes. Nor was he as simple as he seemed. Several surviving oil studies for his landscapes reveal a painterly command and disposition of the main elements of a composition that bring Corot to mind and confirm the willed individuality of his flat, linear style. Rousseau tackled each genre in its own way, with a selective palette and what he conceived were the appropriate conventions for each kind of subject. But so strong was his vision that conventionality is the last thing he achieved. With their subdued color and prosaic features, such as pruned trees in French municipal avenues, sand heaps, little shops, and skies filled with cotton-wool clouds, some of his suburban views are the epitome of solitary Sunday walks but utterly at variance with an Impressionist treatment of the same theme. The absolute directness of feeling comes about through Rousseau’s refusal—some would say inability—to meddle with his initial enchantment of the view before him. The jungle paintings, many of which have an air of menace and some of which depict casual violence, are pure transcriptions of a dream.

The character who emerges from accounts of Rousseau’s life is a gullible man of usually cheerful disposition, a petit bourgeois who is a touch pleased with himself, a fellow easily but affectionately mocked by his sophisticated art-world friends and not averse to a joke. Many of his works reflect these attributes and remain, at the very least, charming and humorous. But on a few occasions, Rousseau’s inner vision mastered him such that he was able to produce astonishing paintings: Walking in the Forest, c. 1886; The Sleeping Gypsy (which Alfred Barr called “one of the most remarkable canvases of the nineteenth century”); The Snake Charmer, 1907; The Football Players, 1908, at the Guggenheim in New York (none of which will, unfortunately, travel to Tübingen); and Tiger Attacking a Buffalo. It is for these works that he deserves his influential place, far above later imitators and alongside the greats of his period. Rousseau would have considered himself superior to them. Such stubborn belief in himself made him a true artist, and one whom other artists were the first to recognize.

“Henri Rousseau: The Customs Inspector—On the Frontier of Modem Art,” Kunsthalle Tübingen, Germany, Feb. 3–June 17.

Richard Shone is an associate editor of the Burlington Magazine.