Henri Rousseau: The Sleepy Gypsy, 1897
Henri Rousseau: A carnival night, 1886
Henri Rousseau: Surprise!, 1891
Henri Rousseau: Unpleasant surprise, 1901
Henri Rousseau: The snake charmer, 1907
Henri Rousseau: The dream, 1910
"You remember, Rousseau, the Aztec landscape / Forests where mangoes and pineapple grow / Monkeys spilling all the blood of the watermelon / and the blond emperor shot to death there? / The pictures you paint, you saw them in Mexico / a red sun decorated the façade of the banana trees / and you, worthy soldier, changed your tunic / for the blue dolman of a good custom officer"
by G. Fernández - theartwolf.com
Naïf, primitivist, sauvage... Too many adjectives to describe an indescribable artist, arguably the most original and uninhibited of all the artists who emerged after the twilight of the impressionism. Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseau was born on May 21st in Laval, France, the son of a local tinsmith. Contrary to many other famous artists of his generation, Rousseau was not attracted to Art at a young age, and he spent seven years of his life in the Army, where he was sentenced to jail after stealing 20 francs in a lawyer's office. This sentence was not only the beginning of Rousseau fame as a "wild" artist, but also delayed his first practices as a painter until the early 1870s, when he started to copy classic paintings in the Louvre and Versailles.
A CARNIVAL NIGHT - THE BEGINNINGS
In 1886, a strange exhibition, organized by the Societé des Independants, was inaugurated in Paris. Two works drew all the attention: the first was the now ultra-famous "Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", by Georges Seurat. The second was "A carnival night", by a strange custom officer called Henri Rousseau. But the reasons by which the two pictures were highly commented were well different: the work by Seurat was applauded as audacious and novel. The picture by Rousseau, with his apparently coarse and infantile style, caused only laughs and mocks, and only thanks to the intervention of Tolouse-Lautrec Rousseau could avoid being excluded from the exhibition.
This was not strange. Most of the critics, who only with great difficulty had admitted the impressionism as an acceptable artistic style, were not prepared for the original style by Rousseau, which nevertheless was very far from being "infantile" or "ignorant". On the contrary, it was a brave and meditated modernist experiment by a man with a great knowledge of art history. Picasso himself said about Henri Rousseau: "The case of Rousseau is not exceptional; it represents a perfectly structured form of understanding art".
In the "Self-portrait, picture-landscape" (1890, Národni Galerie, Prague) Rousseau makes a resume of all his artistic ideas: the figure of the painter is inserted, with no respect for perspective or scale, in the middle of a landscape in which we can see the Pont du Carrousel on the Seine River. The presence of the self-portrayed is so powerful that he not only minimizes the rest of human figures in the composition, but his height also surpasses the Eiffel Tower.
We have already commented that in his first exhibitions at the "Salón des refusés" and "Societé des Indépendants", Rousseau attracted the attention of critics and artists with his primitive and colourist style, but it was not until 1891 when the custom officer caused a truly extraordinary astonishment after exhibiting at the "Salón des Indépendants" a disturbing canvas with the disquieting title of "Surprise!", which showed a ferocious, dangerous beast in the middle of a fantastic rainforest. Clearly influenced by the exotic trees and vegetation the painter had observed in the conservatories and botanical gardens, the work supposed the first approximation to the exotic paintings that Rousseau painted almost 15 years later.
In 1894, shortly after retiring, Rousseau painted one of his more ambitious projects: the disturbing picture titled "The War" (1894, Paris, Musée d'Orsay), which carried the subtitle of "It passes, terrifying, leaving Despair, Tears, and Ruin everywhere". The face of the War is really wild and terrible. However, between the dead men and women we can hardly distinguish a single face; as if Rousseau wanted his plea against the War to be as "anonymous" and "universal" as possible.
In 1897, at the "Salón des Indépendants", Rousseau exhibited for the first time one of his masterworks, displaying "La Bohémienne endormie (The sleepy Gypsy)" (New York, Museum of Modern Art), which carried the subtitle of "The feline, though ferocious, hesitates to pounce upon its prey, who, overcome by fatigue, lies in a deep sleep". The work, fantastic to the point that its boldness surpasses any post-impressionist or symbolist work, was described by Jean Cocteau with this words: "From where such a creature could have fallen? From the moon (...) The gypsy did not come there. She is there. She is not there. She is in no human place. She lives on the reflection."
When talking about his strange picture "Impressions of Africa" (1938), surrealist artist Salvador Dalí said that "Africa must count for something in my oeuvre, because, although I have never been there, I remember it perfectly!" Something similar could have said Henri Rousseau about the exotic South American forests that, from 1904 until his death, became the fundamental subject of his works, although he never crossed the Atlantic.
In "Unpleasant surprise" (1901, Barnes Foundation) Rousseau already painted a wild beast attacking a defenceless woman. This picture - which deeply impressed Renoir- shows the most terrible and violent side of the wild nature, as does the "Fight between a tiger and a buffalo" (1908, Cleveland Museum of Art), "Fight between gorilla and Indian" (1910, Richmond, Virginia, Museum of Fine Arts), or "The repast of the lion" (1907, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Contrasting with the violence of these canvases, we found the 'friendly' narrative of "The glad jokers" (1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art) or the lyricism of "The snake charmer" (1907, Paris, Orsay)
But the unquestionable masterpiece of this period, the summit of Rousseau's Art along with The sleepy Gypsy, is "The Dream" (1910, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), a sensational paintingthat reunites in itself all the magic and fantasy of the art by 'Le Douanier' Henri Rousseau, who explained the work with this suggestive speech: “The sleeping woman on the sofa dreams that she is transported into the forest, while hearing the music of a snake charmer…”
The origins of these fantastically exotic works are so complex that they would force us to an impossible trip within the mind of 'Le Douanier' Rousseau, inhabited by the admiration for Baudelaire's “The flowers of the evil”, the poems of his friend Apollinaire, and the fascination for the wild nature, so typical of the Bohemian artists in the late 19 th century.