The Dream World of Henri Rousseau

by I. Spaak, France

Isabelle SPAAK, journalist

Untutored in the fine arts yet steadfast in his artless, childlike approach to painting, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) intrigued his contemporaries. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire praised the sunny disposition of “this poor old angel.” What Rousseau sees, said surrealist poet Paul Éluard, “will always fill our eyes with wonder.” Avant-garde painter Robert Delaunay believed that Rousseau represented “the popular genius of the French people,” while Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky and German expressionist painter Franz Marc considered him to be one of the fathers of abstract art. And Pablo Picasso was bewitched by Rousseau’s Portrait of a Woman (circa 1895): “one of the truest of French psychological portraits.” Who then was this most puzzling figure of the art world in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France? Undaunted by lack of experience and ignorance, Rousseau, who had long painted in his spare time, turned seriously to painting at forty-one years of age, sustained by boundless self-confidence. Public and critics laughed at his misshapen likenesses, ghostly industrial landscapes, and fanciful jungles with fierce animals locked in combat. Were they not so mysterious and inanimate, his views of the River Seine could be likened to folk art. If his portraits were more lifelike, they would be less compelling. And were the flora and fauna of his ‘jungles’ more realistic, his protean natural world would inspire less fear. But it was precisely because of these peculiarities, this whimsy, his self-made pictorial rules and aplomb that Rousseau proudly declared to Picasso: “We are the greatest painters of the age, I in the modern style and you in the Egyptian!” Doubtless he was right.

Portrait of a woman

Pictured full-length, in a long black dress, the pale blue of her lace collar and belt mirroring the sky above, the woman stands almost life-size on a balcony backed by a hillscape in the same watery hues. Her hand rests on the cut end of a branch, its twigs touching the floor, as if it were a cane or a pedestal table. In her right hand, a drooping flower. Pansies and marguerites in earthenware pots grow under the guardrail. To the woman’s right hangs a heavy fringed drape, its orange, white, and red motifs enlivening the grays of the ensemble. Incongruous, a small bird flies from right to left across the top of the canvas, just beneath the frame.

In this Portrait of a Woman (1895), with its frontal pose, extreme simplification of shapes, clear outlines, primary colors, clumsy execution, Henri Rousseau (1844- 1910) depicts Clémence, his late first wife. Midway between a child’s drawing and conthe realistic manifesto of the Italian primitives, who sought to humanize religious figures by bringing them down from their ethereal abode to earthly scenes among manmade structures, Rousseau’s strange Portrait of a Woman runs counter to the Impressionist revolution that convulsed the world of painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Impressionists distanced themselves from the classical masters by taking easels and paints out of their studios and into the daylight, whose protean nature blurs contours, lending their canvasses an out-of-focus quality. Rousseau, meanwhile, was limning as if it were obvious, even when implausible.

Keen on African masks and tribal art, Pablo Picasso, who had just completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), was enthralled by Rousseau’s work. He stumbled across the portrait of Clémence in 1908 in a junk shop near his Montmartre studio and bought it for a song. This was the first of several of the artist’s paintings that Picasso acquired during Rousseau’s lifetime and after his death, and he never parted with it.

Naïve painter, innocent or archaic, amateur or genius? What terms have not been used to pigeonhole Rousseau, one of the most singular artists in the history of French painting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? By turns praised to the skies and derided by peers and critics alike, this self-taught artist, born 1844 in Laval, northwest France, the son of an ironmonger, struggled for recognition throughout his life, dying almost alone and in debt in 1910.

Playfully nicknamed by his friend the writer Alfred Jarry Le Douanier, the French for customs officer, his job, Rousseau took up painting seriously only at the age of forty-one, before when it had been a pastime. Lacking instruction, but fearless, Rousseau seemingly was guided by a sort of mystical grace, almost as if he were under a spell. A strange man who painted scenes of daily life, riverside views, factories and their smoking chimneys, as well as detailed portraits of himself or his friends Jarry and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and above all amazing ‘jungles’ where wild beasts, sometimes humanlike, fight to the death. All of this without training, without contacts in the art world, without ever having ventured beyond the suburbs of Paris or seen a world more exotic than that within the greenhouses of the Jardin des Plantes in the capital’s 5th arrondissement.

Portrait of a Woman. 1895; oil on canvas; 160×150 cm. Musée
Picasso, Paris, France. © Bridgeman Images.

Rousseau in his studio. 1910; Photo by Pablo Picasso. © RMNGrand
Palais (musée national Picasso, Paris) / Succession Picasso.

The Ride of Discord. 1894; oil on canvas; 114×195 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. © Bridgeman Images.

“Long live, long live Rousseau!”

Soon after having acquired the astonishing portrait of Clémence, Picasso organized a banquet in Rousseau’s honor, to lionize the ingenuous, almost comical Rousseau who, with his ill-proportioned figures and fun fair imagery, seems to walk alone towards a new art.

The banquet was held one November evening in 1908, in the seedy Bateau-Lavoir on the heights of Montmartre. In all the years that the artists, intellectuals, alcoholics, and eccentrics who frequented the maze of studios around Picasso’s had shared the same privations, they had never seen its like. With the exception of a large trestle table, a few African masks collected by Picasso, and Rousseau’s Portrait of a Woman acquired by Picasso a few days before, the room was empty. Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s partner at the time, prepared a huge dish of Catalan rice on a portable stove pending delivery by the grocery store Félix Potin of the meal, for which the guests had clubbed together. The neighboring studio, where the painter Juan Gris worked, had been transformed into a cloakroom. Garlands and Chinese lanterns were hung throughout the room and a banner proclaimed “Hail Rousseau!” The lauded painter took his place on a throne improvised by perching a chair atop a packing case. Given the eminent guests—who included Apollinaire, the artist Marie Laurencin, the critic André Salmon, the painter Georges Braque, art collector and critic Leo Stein, his sister the writer Gertrude Stein and her lifelong partner Alice Toklas—their heavy drinking, and the unusual personality of the guest of honor, this was an evening destined to go down in history.

Picasso in his studio at Notre-Dame-de-Vie holding two portraits painted by
Rousseau. 1962; Photo by André Gomes. © RMN-Grand Palais / Succession Picasso /
Rachida Hammoud.

Rousseau charmed and amused in equal measure. Anomalous, quaint, a simple, gruff, big-hearted man unmatched in naivety, married and widowed twice, father of nine children with his first wife, all but one of whom died young, Rousseau turned seriously to painting at the age of forty-one, when his work situation finally left him time to devote to art. It was 1885, the year which, he wrote in his autobiography, marked his “beginnings in art, after a good many setbacks, alone, with no teacher other than nature.”

“I am my own student,” he declared to the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme from whom he sought advice, as he did from Félix-Auguste Clément, a winner of the Grand Prix de Rome. Both encouraged Rousseau and smoothed his access to the Louvre to allow him to copy its masterpieces. His memory of Equality before Death (1848) by William Bouguereau inspired Rousseau in 1894 to paint War, also called The Ride of Discord, one of his most astonishing paintings in which a frenzied gorgon, hair disheveled, rides a horse across a battlefield strewn with naked corpses redolent of the drowned of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, also in the Louvre collection.

Solitude in the modern world

From 1872, Rousseau was appointed to oversee inspections of boat-borne merchandise, including wines and spirits, along the banks of the River Seine at the gates of Paris, and it became his custom to sketch the surroundings in idle moments and rework the result later. All his life Rousseau painted these naïve scenes of daily life along the banks of the Seine or its main tributary the River Oise. A strange atmosphere emanates from these images of the modern world. Nature is omnipresent because the painter was almost enamored of trees and flowers: “Would you believe that when I go to the country and see the sun, this greenery, these flowers, I sometimes say to myself: it’s mine.” But the skies of his paintings are often stormy, crossed by an airship or plane, as in Landscape and Four Fishermen. Factory chimneys spew black smoke in Footbridge at Passy (1890-91), telegraph poles line roads that lead nowhere in View of Malakoff (1908). The Suburban House (1905) seems deserted. Rousseau’s universes are ghostly, the rare figures reduced to silhouettes glimpsed from afar. Each painting is a reflection of solitude. In The Chair Factory at Alfortville (1897), where is the minuscule lady with parasol going? Rousseau used urban life and the inventions of the modern world to chronicle his century and claimed to have coined the term ‘portrait-landscape,’ in which figures depicted are as important as their surroundings.

Behind the mustached man wearing a fez in Portrait of Monsieur X (around 1910)—without doubt painted from a photograph of Pierre Loti, poet, writer, and Member of the French Academy—Rousseau depicts four factory chimneys, one belching black wreaths. And for his full-length self-portrait, Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1889-1890), veritable manifesto intended to assert himself in the eyes of the art world as a painter with the attributes of his profession—palette, brush, black suit, beret—Rousseau depicts himself in the middle of Paris near the Pont du Carrousel, the Eiffel Tower in the background. Along with Georges Seurat, Rousseau was one of the first artists to take an interest in the Eiffel Tower, the flagship of French knowhow, a steepled iron structure erected for the Exposition Universelle (world’s fair) of 1889 in Paris.

Reversals of fortune

Few artists have experienced such rapid reversals of fortune as Rousseau. Hardly fifteen years separate his heavy-handed artistic efforts, which prompted mockery and gibes, and his championing as one of the great avant-garde artists. Picasso, Robert Delaunay, and Wassily Kandinsky considered him as one of the fathers of modernity, and the surrealists identified with his dreamlike universe. Having failed in his request for admission to the prestigious Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts, Rousseau first tried his luck in 1885 by presenting two canvasses—Italian Dance and Sunset— to the Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects), along with the dissidents of the ‘group of independents.’ His unclassifiable work was received with jokes, insults even. One contemporary press report asserted that “Mr Henri Rousseau’s ghastly work is laughable.” The next year, armed with his unshakeable self-confidence, he submitted Carnival Evening, which depicts a couple dressed in carnival costumes standing at the edge of a forest of barren trees, beneath a bright moon. Criticized for his amateurism, lack of technique, oversimplified shapes, and naivety, Rousseau was the butt of an unsympathetic public’s jokes.

Portrait of Monsieur X (Pierre Loti). 1906; oil on canvas;
Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland. © Bridgeman Images.

The chair factory at Alfortville. circa 1897; oil on canvas; Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France.
© Bridgeman Images.

Yet his work, which seemed to emerge from nowhere, fascinated his peers, interested as they were in art brut (raw art, meaning art created outside official culture) and the advent of primitive forms. Not given to bestowing praise on others, Paul Gauguin admired Rousseau’s “inimitable black.” Seurat said: “Monsieur Rousseau, in general I don’t like the garish coloring we see at the Salon des Indépendants, but I greatly like yours because it is true.” Swiss/French painter Félix Vallotton, astonished by the originality of Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891), declared of Rousseau: “His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it’s the alpha and omega of painting.” This tiger, teeth bared, prowling among plants and trees lashed by a violent storm, is the first of a long series of jungle paintings, to which Rousseau returned time and again until his death, painting exotic and increasingly extraordinary and exuberant vegetation. With these wild and cruel ‘jungles,’ this mysterious imagery, the painter at last succeeded in attracting the attention of the public. “Where are the Rousseaus?” clamored the crowds at each new Salon.

Rousseau soaked up everything he saw: masterpieces by great painters, children’s picture books, photographs of wild animals in magazines, the catalogs of department stores, and, of course, the greenhouses in the Jardin des Plantes.

Gigantic lotuses, bunches of white bananas hanging from naked stems, oranges suspended like Christmas tree baubles, yellow-eyed monkeys lurking behind curtains of palms, elephants merging into bracken: Rousseau’s universe is phantasmagorical. The poisonous allure of The Snake Charmer (1907), the exotic fruit of Eve (1906-1907) struggling with temptation, the terrible Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908), the ape-like pranks, the red ball of the sun setting behind the tufted curtain of grasses in The Hungry Lion throws itself on the Antelope (1898-1905) bear witness to the power of invention of an artist who frenetically recreated the plant and animal world as if on a mission.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!). 1891; oil on canvas; 129.8×161.9 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. © Bridgeman Images.

The Snake Charmer. 1907; oil on canvas; 169×189 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. © Bridgeman Images.

Robert Delaunay compared Rousseau’s technique to that of “old craftsmen who covered the walls of palaces, convents, and churches with their paintings.” He linked Rousseau’s craftsmanship, which is less empirical than it appears, with that of the “illuminators who left no detail to chance, lines above to indicate the masses, other lines for the foreground.” But he detected too the premises of a new art in this painting of “thousands of green hues” in which everything “is thought through, premeditated.”

The ingenuous Rousseau seemed overwhelmed by this luxuriance looming from his canvasses as if a mysterious force was guiding his hand. “One day I was painting a fantastic subject,” he once confided to a friend, “and I had to open the window because fear was upon me.”

The Dream

An outsider who, despite eventual critical success, lived throughout his life from hand to mouth, Rousseau was at times not above a small embezzlement or two, for which he served time. On occasions he disconcerted his most ardent supporters as a maverick of painting who obeyed no one but himself. Alfred Jarry destroyed a canvas he didn’t like; Apollinaire wondered sometimes whether perhaps Rousseau’s general culture was too meager, yet commissioned from him a portrait for which he posed for hours in the Luxembourg Gardens. The result, The Muse inspiring the Poet (1908), shows Apollinaire alongside his mistress, the sylph-like Marie Laurencin, here depicted with the generous curves Rousseau clearly associated with a muse. Another recurring incongruity in Rousseau’s work is that because he was unable to draw feet he solved the problem by hiding them. Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin’s feet are lost in the grass behind a row of sweet williams.

The Muse Inspiring the Poet. 1908-1909; oil on canvas. Pushkin Museum,
Moscow, Russia. © Bridgeman Images.

But it was with The Dream (1910), his last painting, that Rousseau reached full maturity. After Rousseau appealed to him—”You will unfold your literary talent and avenge me for all the insults and abuse I have experienced”— Apollinaire wrote: “Beauty radiates from this painting, there’s no doubt about it. I believe that this time, no one will dare laugh. Ask the painters, they are unanimous: they admire everything, I tell you, and are right to do so.” Rousseau’s mysterious odalisque, naked and reclining on a Louis-Philippe–style (1830-1848) sofa in the middle of a threatening jungle, epitomizes the painter’s fantasies. It was also his swansong, as he was dying. But in the twilight of life he had fallen for Léonie, a widow of fifty-nine who ran a warehouse for milk on the Boulevard des Batignolles in Paris. She readily accepted his gifts, but refused to marry him because he was only a ‘dauber.’

Rousseau reacted to this slight by asking Apollinaire and the art dealer Ambroise Vollard to testify to his talent, and he even wrote a draft of a plan to make a settlement on Léonie after his death. All to no avail. Léonie still rebuffed him and never did become part of his life, but lives on in his artistic legacy, as it is she the fantasized odalisque in The Dream.

A few months later, on his hospital bed, his leg eaten away by gangrene, abandoned by all but a faithful few, did Rousseau remember the banquet at the Bateau- Lavoir, the gathering in his honor at Picasso’s studio? Was his mind peopled by images of those present that evening, everyone who was anyone in the arts and culture in Paris? Did Apollinaire’s toast—”Long live, Long live Rousseau!”— ring joyously in his memory one last time before the final curtain fell? ■