Rousseau, Henri, known as Le Douanier Rousseau
(1844-1910). French painter, the most celebrated of naïve artists.
nickname refers to the job he held with the Paris Customs Office (1871-93),
although he never actually rose to the rank of `Douanier' (Customs Officer).
Before this he had served in the army, and he later claimed to have seen
service in Mexico, but this story seems to be a product of his imagination. He
took up painting as a hobby and accepted early retirement in 1893 so he could
devote himself to art.
character was extraordinarily ingenuous and he suffered much ridicule (although
he sometimes interpreted sarcastic remarks literally and took them as praise)
as well as enduring great poverty. However, his faith in his own abilities
never wavered. He tried to paint in the academic manner of such traditionalist
artists as Bouguereau and Gérôme, but it was the innocence and
charm of his work that won him the admiration of the avant-garde: in 1908
Picasso gave a banquet, half serious half burlesque, in his honor. Rousseau is
now best known for his jungle scenes, the first of which is Surprised!
(Tropical Storm with a Tiger) (National Gallery, London, 1891) and the
last The Dream (MOMA, New York, 1910). These two paintings are
works of great imaginative power, in which he showed his extraordinary ability
to retain the utter freshness of his vision even when working on a large scale
and with loving attention to detail. He claimed such scenes were inspired by
his experiences in Mexico, but in fact his sources were illustrated books and
visits to the zoo and botanical gardens in Paris.
other work ranges from the jaunty humor of The Football Players
(Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1908) to the mesmeric, eerie beauty of The
Sleeping Gypsy (MOMA, 1897). Rousseau was buried in a pauper's grave,
but his greatness began to be widely acknowledged soon after his death.
Art of the Fantastic
artist who prefigured the Surrealists' idea of fantasy with his fresh,
naïve outlook on the world was the Frenchman, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910).
Like Paul Klee, he defies all labels, and although he has been numbered among
the Naïves or Primitives (two terms for untrained artists), he transcends
this grouping. Known as Le Douanier, after a lifelong job in the
Parisian customs office, Rousseau is a perfect example of the kind of artist in
whom the Surrealists believed: the untaught genius whose eye could see much
further than that of the trained artist.
was an artist from an earlier era: he died in 1910, long before the Surrealist
painters championed his art. Pablo Picasso, half-ironically, brought Rousseau
to the attention of the art world with a dinner in his honor in 1908: an
attention to which Rousseau thought himself fully entitled. Although Rousseau's
greatest wish was to paint in an academic style, and he believed that the
pictures he painted were absolutely real and convincing, the art world loved
his intense stylization, direct vision, and fantastical images.
total confidence in himself as an artist enabled Rousseau to take ordinary book
and catalogue illustrations and turn each one into a piece of genuine art: his
jungle paintings, for instance, were not the product of any first-hand
experience and his major source for the exotic plant life that filled these
strange canvases was actually the tropical plant house in Paris.
some glaring disproportions, exaggerations, and banalities, Rousseau's
paintings have a mysterious poetry. Boy on the Rocks (1995-97; 55
x 46 cm (21 3/4 x 18 in)) is both funny and alarming. The rocks seem to be like
a series of mountain peaks and the child effortlessly dwarves them. His
wonderfully stripy garments, his peculiar mask of a face, the uncertainty as to
whether he is seated on the peaks or standing above them, all comes across with
a sort of dreamlike force. Only a child can so bestride the world with such
ease, and only a childlike artist with a simple, naïve vision can
understand this elevation and make us see it as dauntingly true.
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