What was a nude on a sofa doing in the middle of the jungle? It was all quite simple, said Henri Rousseau: “You will no longer find that amazing in the future?” The artist’s ability to combine naturalistic elements in a startling manner and create a mysterious place that could exist only in the imagination had resulted in a seemingly simple,naive, and yet, very unsettling image. Rousseau redefined the picture space by staggering pictorial elements from background to foreground, a method that would later be adopted by the Cubists. This built-up pictorial structure, in the form of painted collage, anticipated the autonomy of the picture plane that would become characteristic of Modernism. Younger artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, both of whom admired and collected his work, were captivated by his technique….
Henri Rousseau, the Douanier: no matter how we regard him, we are faced with contradiction. Was he saint or lunatic? A primitive who made a lifetime out of Sunday painting-“a Giotto without training or culture”? Or among the great and original artists of his generation-“one of the fathers of modern painting”? Was he a technical incompetent who was only prevented from painting academic pictures by his limited abilities? Or can we take Andre Malraux’s view that “the style of his major works is as pertinaciously worked-up as was Van Eyck’s”? Only Rousseau himself seemed to have an unequivocal appreciation of his own worth: “I have been told,” he wrote in 1910, a few months before his death,”that my work is not of this century.”
The paintings themselves do not make it any easier to pin him down. A nude reclines on a red couch in the middle of the jungle, while a dark piper plays and lions stare, wide-eyed from the undergrowth in “The Dream”. Two figures in harlequin costumes stand at the edge of a moonlit wood; behind them, a mask hangs on the side of a house and a street lamp seems to hover above the trees in “Carnival Evening” . A brightly garbed African sleeps in a desert landscape, a staff in her hand, a mandolin and a jug at her side; a lion sniffs around her and a broad river flows in the background in “The Sleeping Gypsy”. Four men in striped athletic uniforms floating like dreamwalkers, play a game of football in a clearing in “Football Players”.
Why are they there? What are they doing? In Rousseau’s work the riddle, the riddle of the dreamworld; is inescapable. It assumes a reality of its own.Rousseau painted his visions, Robert Goldwater says, “as others would paint reality.” That is the secret of his power, a power that even he was not immune from. “One day when I was painting a fantastic subject I had to open the window because fear seized me.” Perhaps this was the truth of his assessment of himself as “one of our best realist painters.”
The same contradictions surround the details of his life. The first forty years, until the time that he emerges as an artist, are obscure. His biographer Roger Shattuck remarks: “it is almost as if he had set about to paint out his past.” Even his customary sobriquet, “douanier” , or custom’s inspector, is a misnomer. before he abandoned regular employment to paint, he was actually a “gabelou” or toll collector, a far less exalted position in the French bureaucratic hierarchy. There is a birth certificate, a scattering of army records, an application to copy paintings at the Louvre, and not much more, to account for those early years. Much of the rest he invented or allowed his friends, such as the poet Apollinaire, to invent for him. He obliged them by becoming what they wanted him to be.
This much we do know about Rousseau: he was born on May 21,1844, in the small city of Laval in the northwest of France. His background was rigidly bourgeois- a father who struggled along as a tinsmith; a mother who came from a family of minor army administrators.
He was an indifferent student. He took violin lessons, and was proficient enough to teach music later in his life. When he was nineteen and employed as a law clerk, he got into trouble and hurredly enlisted in the army. The trouble may have been with a woman or it may have been an involvement in a petty theft. His biographers cannot agree. We do know that between 1864 and 1871 he served two hitches in the army and that he was discharged as a private. In later years the Douanier liked to claim, and the story was picked up by his avant-garde promoters, that he had served a regimental musician in Vera Cruz with Maxilillian’ s unfortunate Mexican expedition.”When questioned about this period of his life,” Apollinaire wrote, “he seemed to remember only the fruits he had seen there, which the soldiers were forbidden to eat.” There is no evidence that Rousseau ever left France. He also liked to boast of his exts in the Franco-Prussian War. There is no evidence that the Douanier ever saw action.
And yet, for reasons that are unclear, a hatred of was obsessed him. Had he witnessed the horrors of the Paris commune in 1871? Or was he merely letting art dictate life again? We do not know. But his pacifism inspired one of his truly great and imaginative paintings, the one that is unlike anything else he ever did. In “War” ( 1894) , a sword- brandishing fury on a black charger elongated to unearthly proportions sails over a field of corpses. The only other living things present are the crows devouring the dead. But the plain, with its barren earth and shattered trees, would shortly become familiar: it is the landscape of no-mans land.
As a young man, out of the army, and employed as a minor customs clerk, he gives the impression of a somewhat aimless and abstracted figure, who rarely spoke and could not be trusted with responsibility. Hardship and personal tragedy must have accounted for a good deal of Rousseau’s vagueness. The gaiety and opulence of Paris in “la belle epoque”, so fondly recalled, was mainly an upper-class phenomenon; for the less fortunate, life could be just as dismal as it was in any other nineteenth century city. Unless they were waiters or domestics, they never saw the Paris of Maxim’s and the Bois de Boulogne; and such places do not appear in Rousseau’s city scenes. “His was a depressed and depressing city of back streets and barrack-like houses,” writes Wilhelm Uhde. “His affection for it partook of the resigned melancholy of the place itself. “
But what can we do with Rousseau’s snake charmers, or the woman whose divan has been transported into a frolicsome jungle Eden? Can we still believe in them? While he could never be accused of being a great painter, Henri Rousseau was instead a maker of marvellous and memorable images. One of the reasons people have been drawn to his art is because we are somehow made aware that behind his exotic paintings lurked a personality who – we like to think – exceeded his untutored skills and overcame his patent deficiencies by dint of a rich poetic imagination. This version of the artist is not exactly truthful (such assumptions rarely are).
Rousseau’s appeal is to the child in all of us. He gives us back a sense of wonder. But like all the best children’s stories, his works are full of darkness, violence and mystery. This is why he’s worth returning to, and why he is so popular. Rousseau himself remains the biggest mystery of all.