How One Naive Amateur Painter Changed the Course of Modern Art Forever

Henri Rousseau, La charmeuse de serpents, 1907, oil on canvas, 167 x 189.5 cm. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Henri Rousseau: The Unlikeliest Member of the Avant-Garde

One night in 1908, at the age of 64, Henri Rousseau, the toll booth operator turned self-taught painter, found himself at the epicenter of the Parisian avant-garde, or at the center of an elaborate joke, or perhaps a little of both. Pablo Picasso had invited Rousseau, known as "Le Douanier" (the customs officer), to a banquet in his honor, attended by a handful of luminaries of art and literature, like Guillaume Apollinaire, Juan Gris, and Gertrude Stein. For Rousseau, who had only begun painting at the age of 40, the party signaled his long-sought acceptance as an artist. For Picasso, however, it's unclear whether "Le Banquet Rousseau," as it became known, was a serious celebration of the naïve painter's work, or a light-hearted mockery of it. Rousseau, ever the innocent, didn't know any better. "We are the two greatest painters of the time, you in the Egyptian genre, me in the modern genre," he famously boasted to Picasso at the end of the evening.

Installation view, Le Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Candor, 22 March - 17 July 2016. © Musée d'Orsay. Photo: Sophie Boegly.

Le Douanier Rousseau is one of the most unlikely characters to have exerted such enormous impact on the course of modern art history. A major new exhibition of his work at the Musée d'Orsay, The Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Candor, examines the context from which he emerged, from Rousseau's influences and inspirations, to the artists from successive generations who were influenced and inspired by him. For such an idiosyncratic artist, this is no easy feat. Placing Rousseau's work among the academic paintings that he so admired and among the modern paintings he inspired, for the most part only serves to emphasize how utterly unique, how inimitable and singular, his style was in late 19th and early 20th century France.

Henri Rousseau, L'Enfant à la poupée, 1904-1905, oil on canvas, 67 x 52 cm. Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de l'Orangerie) / Franck Raux.

Part of what makes Henri Rousseau's story so compelling is the improbably ordinary circumstances from which he emerged. He picked up painting late in life, visiting the Louvre and painting on his time off from his menial job collecting duties on goods entering Paris. He suddenly appeared on the scene at the Salon des Refusés of 1885, and exhibited his paintings regularly in the yearly Salon des Indépendants, gaining an infamous reputation for his childlike style and amateurish technique. Despite the constant derision his canvases received from critics, he persisted with his painting ambitions, developing a following among the avant-garde, like Paul Gauguin and Robert and Sonia Delaunay, who looked to his primitive style and ingenuous persona as an exemplification of a naïve artist uncomplicated by intellectualization and bourgeois values.

Adolphe William Bouguereau, Égalité devant la mort, 1848, oil on canvas, 141 x 269 cm. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

Ironically, Rousseau aspired to the kind of art that exemplified intellectual and aesthetic refinement and bourgeois values: academic painting. Describing his own work, Rousseau names Félix Auguste Clément, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Nature itself as his only influences. Clément and Gérôme were known for history paintings and scenes of Greek mythology and the Orient; apart from his penchant for the exotic, Rousseau's paintings bear little in common with theirs. The exhibition compares some of Rousseau's canvases with examples of contemporary academic painting, and other precedents. The most magnificent pairing is William Adolphe Bouguereau's Egalité devant la mort (1848) met with Rousseau's La Guerre (1894), both from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay. While the two paintings share a common theme and compositional qualities, the exquisite naturalism of Bouguereau's somber figures is totally shattered by the fiercely expressive figures in Rousseau's painting. La Guerre is a deeply strange and disturbing picture, its unnaturalism an effective metaphor exposing the surreal absurdity of war.

Henri Rousseau, La Guerre, c. 1894, oil on canvas, 1.145 x 1.95 m. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. © Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

It is decidedly easier to recognize the affinities between Le Douanier's paintings and the modern works he inspired, from Gauguin to Picasso, and many others. His portraits, with the figures' stocky proportions, masklike faces, and almost sculptural forms against flattened backgrounds, can be seen clearly informing Picasso's deconstructions of form, as well as Diego Rivera's totemic, bulky figures on flattened perspectival planes. Rousseau's densely foliated jungles are echoed in Max Ernst's series of darkly psychological "jungle pictures" painted in the 1930s. His simplified brushstrokes, liberatory sense of color and wild subject matter found adherents in later avant-garde movements like Fauvism and the Blaue Reiter group. A painting by Romanian Surrealist Victor Brauner, a 1946 rendition of Rousseau's La charmeuse de serpent (1907) that features a bizarre multi-limbed alabaster deity supplanting the snakes, is one of the most conspicuous homages.

Installation view, Le Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Candor, 22 March - 17 July 2016. © Musée d'Orsay. Photo: Sophie Boegly.

Throughout the exhibition, however, what becomes ultimately apparent is the sheer distance between Rousseau's proprietary technique and distinct style in comparison with his predecessors, peers, and heirs. The extremely detailed style he refined through his career was and remains his alone--with every leaf, flower, and blade of grass delicately and discretely rendered, flat disc-like celestial bodies hovering in the sky, landscapes suffused with presence, character, and atmosphere. His self-taught technique, entirely ignorant of the traditional skills of painting, was one he worked hard to produce; he once said, "I cannot now change my style, which I acquired, as you can imagine, by dint of labor."

Henri Rousseau, Portrait de Madame M., c. 1890, oil on canvas, 198 x 114.5 cm. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

At Picasso's banquet, despite what he may have thought, it was not Rousseau's skill, his ignorance, innocence, or even his funny, unflappable persona that were being celebrated by the Parisian avant-garde. What likely impressed his peers the most that night, and what remains Le Douanier's most lasting contribution to the history of modern art was the absolute freedom that his paintings signified. Rousseau's painting practice was not only liberated from the strictures of the academy, but from the limitations of everyday bourgeois life. In what realm could a lowly, simple tax collector--who never left Paris, not to mention never visited the wild jungles his paintings depicted--live out his dreams in such a fantastic manner? This sense of liberation, optimism, and the transcendent possibilities of everyday life spread through the guests of the Banquet Rousseau, who then went on to define the art of the modern era.

Félix Vallotton, Le Toast, 1902, oil on canvas, 49 x 67.6 cm. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

--Natalie Hegert