Henri Rousseau, and his paintings
Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844 - September 2, 1910) (May 21, 1844 - September 2, 1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter. He is also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer) after
his place of employment. Ridiculed during his life, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.
Employing a highly personal method of working, Henri Rousseau gathered the elements for his paintings from numerous sources: engravings in illustrated magazines, all sorts of paintings, photographs, and advertising catalogues furnished a detail here, the posture of a person or an animal there, or even a compositional structure.
Any number of artists have been inspired by photography or the works of their predecessors. But rare is the painter who used these sources as often as Henri Rousseau did. Was it a lack of confidence in his own imagination and inventive mind? Did he wish to paint "realistically" (the unabashed intention of so many artists back then?) Did he feel so unsure of himself in rendering gestures or attitudes? What he lacked in this highly codified domain was the long studio apprenticeship of painting from models - a training from which most of his contemporaries benefited, even the least-conformist painters. Did he, perhaps, by "quoting" good "authors" in certain cases, hope to take refuge behind their authority? On closer inspection, Henri Rousseau does not lack imagination. He employs real elements, whether observed or copied, but subject them to his fantasy, changing the scale, making "mistakes" in the proportion, offering improbable situations - all of which permitted him to achieve a superior coherence, just like the Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, who admired him thirty years later.
However, the relationship between Henri Rousseau and his contemporaries or immediate predecessors does not boil down to borrowings that one can interpret as collages pulled together with Rousseau's own language.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the art of painting was renewed perhaps more profoundly than at any moment in the previous four centuries. Rousseau's oeuvre was by no means isolated, untimely,
or fixated on academic or backward models. In the course of time, Henri Rousseau became aware of a painting of rupture, launched by Edouard Manet and the Impressionists. This transformation was elaborated through the
years, and Henri Rousseau took a greater part in it than he is generally credited with.
The Salon of the Independents opened in 1884, and Henri Rousseau exhibited there regularly. He enjoyed some success; his paintings were noticed and commented on, not always derisively. He familiarized himself there with the works of innovative artists. And, no doubt, the mere existence of a Salon "without a jury or prize" allowed Henri Rousseau to express himself unrestrainedly by authorizing him to create huge canvases in full freedom and with the certainty of being able to exhibit them.
Thus, in many paintings, particularly in the tropical landscapes, Henri Rousseau coped with a problem very much on the mid of most artists toward the end of the nineteenth century: the challenge to traditional perspective. Need we recall how profoundly the Impressionists, and then Cezanne, Gauguin, and countless other, challenged the received ideas of depth and relief, or, rather, challenged the traditional pictorial methods for depicting depth and relief? On this point, Henri Rousseau was no more awkward, no more backward, than his contemporaries in seeking new means of spatial representation.
Incidentally, we must abandon once and for all the idea of the Henri Rousseau as an artist who was naive and unpolished. Even before devoting himself entirely to painting, Henri Rousseau came to know the museums and visited exhibitions. He was familiar with the artworks of all eras, at least through photographic reproduction (which were more widespread than is believed). Before him, Van Gogh had dealt with many such reproductions at Goupil's gallery. Even though he never received any academic training, Henri Rousseau, albeit awkwardly and incompletely, knew and assimilated the principles of such instruction. Also, countless how-to-paint handbooks were in circulation, teaching the principles of art and perspective, of landscapes and portraits. Henri Rousseau got hold of such manuals, as proved by many of his canvases, notably the view of Paris based on a precisely calculated manipulation of planes and vanishing traces. One even feels that Henri Rousseau is trying to flaunt newly acquired knowledge here. Likewise, certain vast skies in which the clouds are delicately nuanced with grays, browns, and steely blues are really pastiches of skied by Nicolas Poussin or seventeeth-century Dutch landscape artists. It is now certain that Henri Rousseau did not joint the French expedition to Mexico (1864-66). His supposed participation was a legend spread by Guillaume Apollinaire. Frequenting the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, studying picture albums, especially Wild Beasts, and illustrated newspapers - all this was enough to feed Henri Rousseau's exoticism.
Henri Rousseau's palette is neither indifferent nor interchangeable. Canvases with multiple figures, like "The Representatives of Foreign Powers", burst in a rich variety of colors, while in the landscape the gamut is generally quite restricted. "War" is almost exclusively black and gray, down to the leaves on the trees; the rare touches of red suggest the wounds of the corpses; green and yellow, the colors of hope, light, life, are just about absent. The ancient codes of color symbolism were so widespread, even in highly popularized works or in dictionaries, that Henri Rousseau had to be aware of them, if only unconsciously. By adapting the color scale, sometimes even the treatment, to the subject matter, Henri Rousseau rediscovered - though most likely in all innocence - Poussin's method of using "modes."
In short, Henri Rousseau possessed and cashed in on an artistic (and probably literary) education, often incomplete and poorly assimilated, but serious - as a self-taught background often is. It is wrong to see him as sort of "savage genius" or "naive ignoramus." Demonstrating his pictorial knowledge, exhibiting his works and having them noticed, even selling them - for this minor functionary, such things meant true upward mobility, the affirmation of a self-acquired intellectual background.
There are other examples of Henri Rousseau's profound rapport with certain preoccupations of his contemporaries. One of the most important and beguiling aspects of his works is his depiction of tropical flora, with people and animals usually reduced to silhouettes. This profuse, pervasive vegetation, permitting but meager space to living creatures, completely hiding the sky, unfolding without density in a single plane, can be found at approximately the same time, 1990, in Gauguin, but in many other artists, too. One need merely cite "The black Castles" of later Cezanne, the "Water Lilies" of Claude Monet, the landscapes of Auguste Renoir, Gustav Klimt. Such a convergence within a few years would call for an explanation. In opposition to the realistic or naturalistic obsession which was forced upon nineteenth-century painters and writers by what amounted to intellectual terrorism, these landscapes derive from the world of dreams, the imaginary, the reinvented. They define a universe beyond every-day urban life, beyond time, a cosmic and slightly pantheistic nature. an uprooting toward the exotic and the fantastic is an obvious aspiration of urban life, which, in the late nineteenth century, was already marked by the machine. Colonial expeditions and religious missions, with their accompanying movements in opinion, the success of such writer as Jules Verne and Pierre Loti, not to mention their countless epigoni, bear further witness to this trend toward exoticism.
Thus Henri Rousseau, seemingly entrenched in his studio, participated in some of the most audacious research in contemporary painting. This was probably one reason for his success with other artists (we know Pablo Picasso, Robert, and Wassily Kandinsky were among his first admirers). But by re-introducing the values of the imaginary into the art of his period, he went beyond one of the needs of his time - and ours.