SPIRIT WORLD: Talking With a Famished Lion About Poetry

The French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) pursued an ideal in his quest to capture a spirit of innocence. While still very much rooted in French city life, and for many-years a conventional man, he nevertheless projected images of an exotic world of magic and freshness. Known as “Le Douanier” because he worked for the Paris customs service until 1893, he was an untrained painter. However, amid much criticism and controversy, the exclusive intellectual elite of late 19th-century Paris at the end of the century claimed to understand the “hedonistic mystifications” of symbolism in his work. …

Rousseau. Portrait of a Woman.---In his 40s, Rousseau took up painting in earnest with the stated ambition of matching the talent of the formalist and formulaic French Academie des Beaux-Arts painters. He always claimed to have had “no teacher other than nature”, but admitted to have received “some advice” from the established academicians Felix Auguste-Clement, who was his neighbour, and through him Jean-Leon Gerome. He was also known to have sought out William Bouguereau, another genius of the Academy.---

Henri Rousseau was beginning to receive a measure of serious recognition. In 1905 his “Hungry Lion” was hung in a central room of the new Salon d’Automne, along with paintings by Derain, Vlaminck, Rouault, and Matisse. Rousseau described his painting: “The hungry lion throws himself on the antelope and devours him. The panther anxiously awaits the moment when he, too, will be able to have his share. Birds of prey have ripped pieces of flesh from the poor animal who pours forth his death cry! Setting sun.”

Rousseau. Rendez-Vous in the Forest.--In 1885, with heady news of African jungle explorations constantly in the papers and France now colonising Tunisia, it’s likely that Rousseau saw a major Paris exhibition of Eugene Delacroix’s work, and the depictions of tigers and lions no doubt had an impact. Before Rousseau began exploring his steaming jungles, there were the demure forests. “Promenade in the Forest” from 1886 and “Rendezvous in the Forest” from ‘89.

Probably with Rousseau’s canvas in mind, one critic derided this roomful of flamboyant colorists as a cage of wild animals- thus giving birth to the term “fauves” , by which they would forever after be known. A few of the more advanced dealers were beginning to buy his work, although in his own lifetime none of his paintings ever fetched more than a few hundred francs. Young artists like the American Max Weber came to his studio to watch him paint. His Saturday “soirées familiales et artistiques” , at which artists and writers mingled with his pupils and neighbors, became famous. And in 1908, there took place an event that gave meaning to the Douanier’s struggles as nothing else could: the “banquet Roussseau”.

Exotic landscape."Having never had formal training, Rousseau concocted his own technique. He’d start at the top of the canvas and work his way down, one colour at a time. In his jungles there were 50 shades of green for foliage that sprouted from his imagination rather than any earthbound seed. Each leaf sprouts distinctly, but happily joins nature’s overall design, the branches celebrating in abstraction. Within the lush forest, drama brewed or boiled. It was the Douanier’s take on the grand history of traditional academic painting."

Some of its participants undoubtedly thought of it as a put-on; most-and it is to their credit- conceived of it as a very real tribute. With the passing of time, it has come to be looked back on nostalgically as a celebration, not only of one man’s work, but of a whole era-“la belle epoque” of modern art. The banquet was organized by Picasso in his Montmartre studio; the pre-text was his finding of a ten-year-old Rousseau portrait in a second hand shop. The evening began riotously. The dinner guests arrived drunk; the dinner did not arrive at all: the host had given the caterer’s the wrong day. Finally, Apollinaire appeared with the guest of honor; the Douanier ( Rousseau) held his cane in one hand, his tiny violin in another: “his old face broke into a smile.”

Tate:This pair of portraits (below), representing Rousseau and his wife, were acquired by the painter Robert Delaunay and later purchased by Picasso, who proudly displays them in this photograph (shown right) taken in 1965. The simplicity of the subjects and the lamps evoke the domesticity of family life. Such paintings were much admired by the Parisian avant-garde, who applauded Rousseau’s ability to find poetry in the everyday.

Rousseau played one of his own compositions on his violin. Apollinaire improvised a poem that began: “You remember Rousseau, the Aztec landscape…” Two young poets scuffled in the coatroom. Apollinaire’s mistress, the painter Marie Laurencin, sang. Georges Braque played his guitar. Ladies danced to he Douanier,s violin. Laurencin tripped on some pastries. Hot wax from one of the decorative Chinese lanterns dripped constantly on the old man’s head, but he apparently never thought to move. After a while he fell asleep, and by the time Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas- the two American ladies were the only two guests to arrive in evening clothes- excorted him home in a cab, “a great caul” of wax had formed over the back of his head. The party continued on into the morning.

---In his populated allegories he mixed the social classes, and often the French tricolour was patriotically waving, or at least the blue and red of the City of Paris.---

The banquest had provided a fitting climax to the Douanier’s life and, had it been a novel, he should have died then and there. Fortunately for us he did not. In the last two years of his life, Rousseau painted feverishly and produced some of the most important canvases, among them “The Dream”,”Football Players”, and “Negro Attacked by a Jaguar”. But his career was very nearly cut short when, as a favor to a former music pupil, he allowed himself to become involved in a petty swindle. Rousseau was guilty as charged, but his lawyer got him off by a clever demonstration of his client’s simple-mindedness: “You have no right,” he said in conclusion, “to condemn a primitive.

21; The court proceeded to show more leniency than many of the Douanier’s critics.

Tate:Some of Picasso’s portraits of small children from the late 1930s are reminiscent of Rousseau’s paintings, such as his Child with Doll c.1904-5.

On a hot day in August of 1910, Rousseau’s friend Wilhelm Uhde knocked on his door. The Douanier “lay on his bed, ghastly pale. There was a painful sore on his leg. He was so apathetic that he didn’t even brush away the flies which buzzed around his face, but he did talk of getting up soon and going on with his painting.” He was infected with gangrene, apparently the result of an attempt to bleed himself. “He used to do this,” the painter Robert Delaunay discovered, “because his blood was turned by worry.” A few days later, Rousseau died in a hospital ward, alone. He was buried in a communal grave- a treatment reserved for paupers.

The story of Henri Rousseau does not quite end with his death. Immediately after, unsold paintings in his room were auctioned to pay his funeral expenses. They brought no more than a few hundred francs. Two years later Uhde helped to arrange for an exhibition of the Douanier’s work and spent considerable time trying to locate lost paintings. He discovered one, an “early picture of a young woman in red walking in a spring wood,” in the flat of a laundress; the painting had been used as a fire screen. The woman sold it to Uhde for what she considered to be an outrageous price: forty francs. Uhde found Rousseau’s daughter  in Angers married to a traveling salesman. She owned only a single small picture: “The others, I was informed, had ‘luckily’ been destroyed.

Rousseau. Woman Walking in Forsest. Guillaume Apollinaire:Those who knew Rousseau remember his marked predilection for ghosts. He encountered them everywhere, and one ghost tormented him for more than a year while he was at the toll station. Whenever the good man was on duty, his familiar spirit appeared two feet away from him, taunting him, thumbing his nose at him, and breaking wind with a stench that nauseated the poor official. Several times Rousseau tried to shoot him down with a shotgun, but a ghost cannot die a second time. And if Rousseau tried to grasp him, the ghost would melt into the ground and reappear in a different spot.

But already things had begun to change. By 1914, one of the jungle scenes sold for 9,000 francs. Forgeries began to appear-“proof of impending fame,” as Uhde said. When the war broke out, the whole of the young German dealer’s collection was conficated, and he was deported. It was ten years before he returned to Paris; he discovered that the asking price of his red lady in the spring wood was now 300,000 francs. This was only the beginning.

In 1953, “The Dream” was bought for the Museaum of Modern Art in New York for more than $100,000, and a few years later the Guggenheim Museum paid $103,600 for “Football Players”.No one bothers to dispute their place in modern art. The Douanier is taken for granted- it has come to that.

Rousseau. Luxembourg gardens. 1909.Arnold Hauser:The increased demand for works of art in the Renaissance led to the ascent of the artist from the level of the petty bourgeois artisan to that of the free intellectual worker. The concept of genius appears. Shakespeare looked down on the broad masses of the people with a feeling of superiority and made clear in his dramas the struggle between the Crown, the middle class and the aristocracy. Gradually the bourgeoisie took possession of all the instruments of culture. Rousseau was the first to speak as one of the common people himself. He turned against reason because he saw in the process of intellectualization also that of social segregation. After the French Revolution artists and writers created their own standards, and their work brought them into a constant state of tension and opposition towards the public. Through Byron restlessness and aimlessness became a plague. The theory of 'l'art pour l'art' gave expression to romantic opposition to the bourgeois world; that is before Flaubert and Baudelaire shut themselves in their ivory towers, and the theory started to reflect a conservative attitude.


In March 1910, the critic Arsene Alexandre interviewed Henri Rousseau in his Montrouge studio, where the artist was working on one of his jungle pictures. As he was about to leave, the critic noticed an extraordinary canvas entitled Le Present et le Passe , which he described for his readers. The image is autobiographical; it shows Rousseau and his second wife, both smartly dressed, in a landscape setting. Above the heads of these figures hover the ghostly presences of their former spouses; at the foot of the painting a poem is inscribed that explains how the couple will remember their lost loves. Noting Alexandre’s interest, the Douanier added his own comments. ‘It is a philosophical painting, said Henri Rousseau to me, ‘it is a little spiritualist, isn’t it?’

Present and the Past. Ireson:For Uhde, it seems as though the idea of Rousseau being spiritually gifted excused the banality of the artist's petit bourgeois existence, and made him stand out from his social equals. In Uhde's account the artist's closeness to the 'spirit' world is effectively offered as a possible explanation for the unconventionality of his work and person; his 'visionary' art is presented as the product of a 'visionary' individual. In a strange reversal of biblical language, Uhde would go on to number Rousseau amongst 'the poor in spirit who possess the kingdom of heaven', and explain that the painter could capture 'states of soup with a Christ-like love. The Portrait d'une femme, for instance, was taken as an example of Rousseau having captured that of a 'strange and neurasthenic being. first image in article.

The 1910 Montrouge interview introduces the idea that the artist was interested in spiritualism, or was of interest to spiritualists, but it is just one of several occasions on which his name appeared in conjunction with a reference to the supernatural.  Art historians have ignored such references, attributing them to the anecdotal aspects of the Rousseau myth, yet they are significant. The subject of ‘Rousseau and spiritualism’ merits attention because it can be used to illustrate broader trends in the Douanier’s critical fortune. These ‘spirit’ anecdotes are one of the richest examples of how art writers tackled the new interpretative difficulties that Rousseau’s work presented; they are some of the clearest articulations of how the Douanier was seen as ‘different’.

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