What then was the spring of Rousseau’s creativity? He revealed it himself at the end of his life: “…when I enter the glasshouses [of the Jardin des Plantes or the Jardin d’Acclimatation] and I see those strange plants from exotic countries, I feel as though I am entering a dream!” (told to Arsène Alexandre in Comœdia, 1910). To tell the truth, this dream, which was largely stimulated by the public fervour surrounding France’s colonial venture, was not limited to exoticism but affected every moment of Rousseau’s life: faced by numerous difficulties, he resisted by fantasizing his life (for example, he claimed to have taken part in military exploits that never occurred) just as much as his painting, in a perfect symbiosis between reality and dream: “Rousseau was so carried away by the power of his visions [scenes of combat in the jungle] that, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and oppression, he had to open the window to get his breath back” (Uhde). It could alter a piece of news into an unusual and esoteric image (Unpleasant Surprise, Indépendants, 1901) or a phantasmagorical one, for example, an engraving of elegant Parisian women in exotic glasshouses inspired him to create the two Portraits of Marie Isard walking through a tropical forest. Nature and the sources that stimulated his creativity were the starting points for his dreaming: he strongly stylized ordinary rural or urban views (usually identifiable but sometimes composed of elements from different sources, e.g. The Toll Station) to create landscapes shot through with serenity or joy, not worrying about the truthfulness of the vegetation or other elements for the scene shown (he placed a gorilla in the same scene as a North American Indian, a very fashionable figure since the Buffalo Bill show visited Europe). Highly concerned by his choice of colours (birds and flowers in arbitrary colours), Rousseau was not without humour: see, for example, the comical depiction of “dancing” rugby players in The Football Players (1908, the year of the first rugby match in France), or animals miming humans, like the monkeys fishing in Tropical Forest with Monkeys (1910), stealing the painter’s materials as he works in the Merry Jesters (1906), or a dog or cat posing with humans and adopting their same serious attitude (caused by the influence of photographic portraiture) (The Wedding Party, Indépendants, 1905, and the Portrait of M.F., called Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1906?).
In so doing he removed any notion of hierarchy between living creatures and suggests that man is dependent on nature. It is also a metaphor of his own experience, as is the theme of hunger, illustrated by the struggles for survival that take place in many of his jungle scenes, the earliest being The Hungry Lion, Indépendants, 1898). However, sublimation is at work in these cases as his battling animals are devoid of any emotion and demonstrate complete serenity. Rousseau was capable of depicting ferocity, as is shown by a copy he made of a battle between wild creatures by Delacroix. Was he perhaps not trying to show that these scenes are part of the harmonious order of nature laid down by God, whose perfection is illustrated by the luxuriance of the vegetation? It is a form of sanctification that echoes the Italian Primitives of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (such as the rocks and crooked buildings of Lorenzo Monaco), and Japanese and Persian artists, and provides another example of the poetical and dreamlike vision that transcends appearance and was present in his art since his early works (Carnival Evening, Indépendants, 1886).
Music, so dear to the artist, plays a major role in this ideal universe. It provides the harmony in The Happy Quartet (Indépendants, 1902), which is an allegory of Love but also an image of Arcadia and the Golden Age, and it is Rousseau’s favourite device when endowing dark-skinned figures with a spell-binding, mysterious power: a mandolin beside the Sleeping Gypsy (1897) known for her knowledge of the occult, a pipe played by the androgynous animal-charmer in The Charm and The Dream (1910), and a flute in the Snake-Charmer (1907). Its purpose is to establish harmony between all living things and to suspend time. The figures are designed to take us back to paradisiacal ages, such as the biblical Eve before the Fall, an innocent creature in the Garden of Eden, a subject to which Rousseau dedicated two paintings in a vision of an original world still preserved.
Rousseau had the faculty to interpret through the wonder-filled eyes of childhood. He employed the naivety found in children’s drawings as well as the fascination we feel towards the mystery inherent in nature and man himself. This is suggested by the unreal, mostly lunar, light that bathed his compositions right from his early days (View of the Ile Saint-Louis from the Port Saint-Nicholas, Indépendants, 1887) and the strange intensity of his portraits, in which the apparently frontal view is often deceptive (an ear is hidden while half the face is in shadow). This strangeness however bears no trace of uneasiness, with the possible exceptions of portraits of children wearing an unsettlingly serious expression (a memory of the loss of his many children or an admission of how much he missed his daughter Julia?) or the figure of the fury of devastation in War. Rousseau was particularly fond of dreamlike atmospheres – as his personal testament, did he not paint The Dream?
As the creator of a world in which time is suspended, was Rousseau able to work on the basis of the ephemeral visions of Impressionism? He brushed up against them in a few oil-based studies like the rather mediocre Still Life with a Basket of Cherries (1880) and the more successful View of Billancourt and Bas Meudon, Haze Effect (1890), but it is interesting to note that he would later use the technique of making skilful preparatory drawings or oil sketches directly from the motif before reworking the image in the studio. We are still surprised to see that he respected the conventions when copying Delacroix’s Tiger Attacking a Lion, or painting a sky in the style of Poussin (Family Fishing, The Chair Factory at Alfortville) or the subtle rendering of woven fabrics (a curtain in the Portrait with a Lamp of his first wife; a fold in the blue tunic worn by the grandfather in The Wedding Party), not to mention the several successful perspectives already mentioned. It’s enough to make you doubt his complete ignorance of the fundamentals of painting. After all, to his great pride he was made a drawing and painting teacher at the Association Philotechnique in Paris after just a few months of teaching in 1903. Of course he learned the craft as he went along and may have felt his technical limits from time to time but he also claimed to have “progressively improved his style in the original genre that he had adopted” (autobiographical entry, 1895). In fact, this “unremitting naiveté that has succeeded in becoming a style” (Th. Natanson) appears to have corresponded best to his thoughts and visions, one able to imbue his art with its lyrical and poetic power. Had those academic painters Gérôme and Clément sensed that when they advised him not to shift away from it?
Whatever the answer, Rousseau was considered both a realist and modern painter at the same time. An admirer of Courbet, he had no thought of dislocating forms like the Cubists: “Why did Robert [Delaunay] break the [Eiffel] Tower?” he asked on his death bed.
But he benefited from the modern advances made by his contemporaries Cézanne and, in particular, Gauguin, with whom he had certain similarities, as well as with Seurat. He and the divisionist painter shared a fondness for the urban and rural landscapes of their time; the simplified structure and rhythm given by geometrically organized lines and the meticulous treatment of details generated a lyrical effect of stillness and tranquillity, however, there is far more joyfulness in Rousseau’s painting. His link was stronger with Gauguin, whose works he was able to see in galleries and salons, and whom he probably visited when Gauguin had his studio in Rue Vercingétorix in 1894–95: aside from the fact that they both took up art at a later age than normal and that they both favoured exotic themes, Rousseau’s art shared Gauguin’s primitivizing Synthetism in its guise as a fully accomplished expression of the children’s painting Gauguin advocated at Pont-Aven from August 1888. Each liked to dream before nature, and the power of their inner visions, whose purpose was to reveal the hidden essence of phenomena, instilled their works with an almost sacred and mystical dimension that made conscious reference to the ancient myths dear to the Symbolists and Primitivists. From 1890 onwards, Gauguin admired Rousseau’s bold style, which was probably influenced by the former’s paintings (see, for example, the similarity between Gauguin’s Loss of Virginity and Rousseau’s Beauty and the Beast, and the former’s Tahitian sorcerers and rituals on Rousseau’s music-playing charmers). Both artists were invited to contribute to L’Ymagier, a review founded in 1894 by Alfred Jarry and Remy de Gourmont that featured primitive imagery and modern drawings. However, unlike Seurat or Gauguin, Rousseau’s art was free of philosophical ideas and stripped of all intellectualism. Taking inspiration from everything around him, from the lowest to highest levels, Rousseau had no need to theorize to give free rein to his imagination and to escape from the meagreness of his surroundings. Nor did he need to travel as the power of his dreams was such that it eradicated all boundaries between art and life.
“I’ve been told that I don’t belong to this century” (1910).
When he was not considered unclassifiable, most of Rousseau’s contemporaries likened him to the Primitives or thought of him as a simple precursor of a school of naïf painting (Georges Courteline bought some of his works for his “Musée des Horreurs”, which he renamed “Musée du labeur ingénu”).
Noticed by a handful of young writers who commissioned a portrait from him (Léon-Paul Fargue, 1896) and who supported him in the press, first and foremost Alfred Jarry who met him in 1894 in front of War and introduced him to Guillaume Apollinaire in 1907, shortly before his death Henri Rousseau became a fundamental reference for the young avant-garde fronted by Picasso. It seems that the young Spaniard found his French elder a catalyst in his own development to judge by the landscapes he painted at La-Rue-du-Bois in late summer 1908, which punctuated his advance towards Cubism. Whereas Robert Delaunay, Rousseau’s close friend since 1906, introduced him to new themes – the Eiffel Tower, aircraft and sports teams, which were later also taken up by Albert Gleizes and André Lhote – he also helped to make him known among the Blaue Reiter in Germany that was then being formed. Wassily Kandinsky was also won over by Rousseau’s spiritualistic “simplicity of form” that encouraged him to consider new directions, while Franz Marc, an animal-lover, was attracted by the jungle scenes. The Blaue Reiter almanac published in 1912 included seven of Rousseau’s works, while the first Autumn Salon in Berlin a year later, where the group was strongly represented, dedicated an entire room to the French artist Kandinsky called a “great poet”.
His realism based on a naiveté that “is the antechamber of Paradise” deeply affected the German artist Max Beckmann, a painter of “transcendent objectivity”, who would continually borrow from “this Homer in a concierge’s lodge”. Rousseau’s miniaturist art also prompted Joan Miró to experiment with his style (1916–20) and helped Fernand Léger to find his direction, who above all admired him “because he painted candidly like David”.
With The Dream, which introduced the irrational juxtaposition of objects (a female nude on a sofa in the jungle), Rousseau – called “le Visité” by Jarry – became a model for the Surrealists from the movement’s first moments with the Italian Giorgio De Chirico: this friend of Ardengo Soffici took immediate inspiration from the form and spirit of Rousseau’s painting. In 1917, in reaction to Futurism, De Chirico founded the Scuola Metafisica with Carlo Carrà, the author of a shining eulogy to Henri Rousseau, while in France André Breton, attracted by the “magical realism” of this painter-poet, proposed that The Dream should be “paraded in the streets like Cimabue’s Virgin was formerly paraded in Rome”.
Later still, in 1946, Victor Brauner painted The Encounter at 2bis Rue Perrel (Rousseau’s last address) in which his Conglomeros is included in the painting The Snake Charmer; and Paul Delvaux also paid tribute to his predecessor with The Forest (1948), a restatement of The Dream.
“It will always be said that destiny is unjust when it reserves mockery and disappointments for an artist during his lifetime and crowns him [with glory] two years after his death” (Guillaume Apollinaire). But despite the jeers of the crowd, Henri Rousseau already understood that his naïf style would be a glorious catalyst to modern painting!
Henri Certigny, Le Douanier Rousseau en son temps : biographie et catalogue raisonné (2 vol., 1984 ; supplément n°1, 1989 ; suppl. n°2, 1990 ; suppl. n°3, 1993 ; suppl. n°4, 1993)
Le Douanier Rousseau, catalogue de l’exposition du Grand Palais à Paris et du Museum of Modern Art à New York, 1984
Catherine Guillot, Le Douanier Rousseau : jungles à Paris, catalogue de l’exposition du Grand Palais à Paris, 2006
Isabelle Cahn, Le Douanier Rousseau : naïf ou moderne ?, 2006
Yann Le Pichon, Les écrits du Douanier Rousseau, 2010
Yann Le Pichon, Le Monde du Douanier Rousseau, 2010
Henri Rousseau : Archaic Naiveté, catalogue de l’exposition de la Fondazione Musei civici di Venezia, Palazzo ducale à Venise et à la Národní Gallerie à Prague, 2015.