Escapism at Its Finest : Notes on Henri Rousseau

Rousseau is still luring us into jungles he created without ever leaving France. As we celebrate the 176th anniversary of his birth on May 21, Rousseau’s pursuit of his dreams offers a lesson in handling the limits of life during the coronavirus pandemic.

Imagine the surprise of these two combatants on meeting each other.

In this painting by Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), a gorilla fights with a Native American who appears to wear a feather headdress. Yet, gorillas are found in the wild only in certain parts of Africa, while the man’s attire suggests he may be from the Great Plains of the United States.

It’s as if this gorilla escaped from a zoo in Paris just as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show arrived for a stop on one of its European tours. Perhaps a Wild West Show performer went for a stroll — in his stage clothes — in a Parisian botanical garden, where ... zut alors ... he ran into the gorilla? (Zut alors is French for Holy smokes.)

Rousseau constructed the story of this curious battle from sights he’d seen in Paris. There’s a dreamlike quality to the mishmash of “Tropical Landscape: American Indian Struggling with a Gorilla.” Sleeping brains often make odd juxtapositions of images that our eyes have taken in during waking hours.

In Rousseau’s time, many Europeans were fascinated by images of Native Americans. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show toured on the European continent from the 1880s through early 1900s. In the 1840s, American artist George Catlin had introduced Europeans to Native Americans on a series of tours. (Some Native American performers lost their lives during these tours, falling ill to smallpox.)

Rousseau also spent many hours in the zoos and natural history collections of Paris, studying animals. In this, Rousseau drew inspiration from the works of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), famed for his pictures of lions and tigers.

But botany seem to be what most sparked Rousseau’s genius.

It’s not just how magnificently he paints lush clusters of plants and trees. It’s how these settings became the stage for Rousseau’s stories told in paint.

And these stories are what have kept people fascinated with Rousseau’s paintings over decades, even as work of more polished artists fades in and out of fashion. Rousseau made regular visits to Jardin des Plantes, a magnificent Parisian complex of gardens and greenhouses.

When I go into the greenhouses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream (Quand je pénètre dans ces serres et que je vois ces plantes étranges des pays exotiques, il me semble que j’entre dans un rêve),” Rousseau told an art critic.

Rousseau did not even need the grandeur of the Jardin des Plantes, wrote art critic Nathalia Brodskaya in her book, “Post-Impressionism.” (Note: There is a link at the end of this essay for a bibliography with details on Brodskaya’s book and other works cited here.)

His imagination turned the rush growing in any brook into palm trees, the fruit of hop into tuber of exotic creeper. Oranges hung in the jungle like huge orange balloons and little field flowers got amplified hundreds of times,” Brodskaya wrote. “It seems like he truly saw monkeys hanging from the branches.”

This description of Rousseau is especially inspiring these days.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re all forced to stay close to home. I’m one of many digital nomads whose travels are indefinitely on hold. But I can look at this as a time to explore the wonders around my house in Washington, D. C.

Let’s pause here for a moment to enjoy a few of the visions Rousseau shared with us. And then we’ll look at why he also offers us lessons in how to stick with your dream, even if others mock you.

Rousseau’s Snake Charmer. 1907. Musée d’Orsay. Wikipedia copy of image in public domain.

Painting With Perseverance

An art critic for The Guardian nailed the reasons why Rousseau is such a popular artist.

“While he could never be accused of being a great painter, Henri Rousseau was instead a maker of marvellous and memorable images,” wrote Adrian Searle in a 2005 review.

“Rousseau’s appeal is to the child in all of us. He gives us back a sense of wonder. But like all the best children’s stories, his works are full of darkness, violence and mystery.”

Consider Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy,” which is owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

MOMA’s website says it has a collection of almost 200,000 works of art. I’d bet there are thousands of paintings sitting unseen in MOMA’s storage sites that are technically superior to “The Sleeping Gypsy.” Look at the size of the gypsy’s arm compared to her feet in the picture below.

And what about the orange water pitcher in the lower right corner. Is it just me or does it seem like that vessel stands straighter than it should? Do the positions of our sleeping gypsy and her mandolin suggest they’re on more of an incline than is the pitcher?

But that’s a deliberate nitpick about the water pitcher. I studied this image of “The Sleeping Gypsy” for a few minutes to come up with a few complaints. More than a century old, this painting still raises questions for the viewer. Is the lion protecting the woman? Is the lion part of her dream? Is she dreaming at home or alone outdoors?

“The Sleeping Gypsy” has been on view nearly continually display at MOMA over the past eight decades. We adore this painting despite its imperfections. “The Sleeping Gypsy” usually claims a spot on lists of must-see paintings at MOMA, along with the museum’s star attraction, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Yet, Rousseau and Van Gogh struggled during their lives as artists. Rousseau had a scrapbook into which he pasted negative reviews of his work, wrote Alastair Sooke in a 2015 BBC report on the French painter. There were many of these bad reviews, one of which Sooke cites in his article.

“ ‘Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet, with a blindfold over his eyes,’ one critic spat. Another remarked, in 1889, that he had ‘never seen anything more grotesque’ than Rousseau’s portraits and Van Gogh’s Starry Night (which, in retrospect, hardly seems like bad company to be keeping) ,” Sooke wrote in 2015.

Looking at Rousseau’s portraits, it’s easy to see why they were a tough sell during his lifetime. In his defense, we can say Rousseau anticipated in the trippy imagery of surrealism, as seen in the portrait of the couple below. In the portrait of the boy, we see the interest in blocky shapes that would be fully explored in another school of painting, cubism.

But the taste of many art patrons of Rousseau’s time developed around older French ideals for art.

Rousseau himself was a fan of one of the most popular French painters of the 19th century, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). Like Rousseau, Gérôme imagined scenes, but his included playing witness to grand moments of history and antiquity.

Many art patrons in the Belle Epoque (1871- 1914) were not ready for the challenges of Rousseau’s work. Rousseau had a hard time finding someone to take “The Sleeping Gypsy” off his hands after he finished it in 1897. He offered to sell it to the government of his hometown, Laval, for a modest sum, but was rebuffed.

Gérôme also would indulge his playful nature in his work, as seen in the painting below.

The painting includes many props that Gérôme used to enhance the authenticity of his Orientalist and classical scenes, says the website of the Dahesh Museum. Orientalism is a kind of fantastical depiction of life in Egypt and other parts of what was then the Ottoman world. Gérôme traveled widely in his life, visiting Turkey and Greece as well as Egypt.

Gérôme benefited from a booming mid 19th century market for art reproductions. There was a ready audience for his technically masterful paintings. A talented artist, Gérôme begun his training in his teens to hone his skill.

Rousseau had a much later start to his artistic career.

Le Douanier

As a young man, Rousseau was involved with a legal scrape that forced him to do a military stint. He would later foster a legend that he traveled to Mexico with the army. But researchers have established that he never left France.

After his military service, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868. He found a job as a clerk in the toll service, imposing duty on goods entering the city. In his later life, Rousseau would be nicknamed Le Douanier, French for the customs officer. It’s somewhat inaccurate reference to his work with the toll service.

Rousseau began to try his hand at art as something of a serious hobbyist. In 1884, he obtained a permit to sketch in the Louvre. In the same year, a group of young painters founded the Salon des Indépendants. This was part of a continuing revolt in late 19th century French artistic circles against the rigid rules of the past. The Impressionists already had challenged the academic conventions represented by Gérôme.

Rousseau was denied entry to an official formal and juried exhibition that reflected the older rules. So he took advantage of the newly established annual Salon des Indépendants, which was open to all. Rousseau showed paintings from 1886 until his death. In 1893 Rousseau retired with a small pension and began to paint full time.

But his dedication to his art was not quickly repaid.

For many years, he was ridiculed. In the BBC article, Alastair Sooke included a note from a critic who had said “backs jostle in front of his entries, and the place rocks with laughter.”

Still, Rousseau doggedly kept submitting work to the Salon. He began to attract champions among younger members of Parisian art circles, including painter Robert Delaunay (1885–1941). Delaunay would help Rousseau land his first major commission in 1907.

A famous story has Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) stumbling across Rousseau’s work around the same time in a secondhand shop.

(T)he owner suggested that the portrait of a large woman was so bad it should be painted over. But Picasso, who bought it for 5 francs, liked it in a twisted way: It was so bad that it was good,” wrote Jessica B. Harris in a 2017 New York Times article.

Picasso in 1908 hosted a dinner in honor of Rousseau. Some saw Picasso’s tribute as something of a joke played on Rousseau by members of the in crowd. Rousseau still drew scorn for his naive style. He struggled financially. He had to supplement his pension in various ways, including playing the violin.

But among those gathered at Picasso’s dinner was influential art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, another of Rousseau’s true champions.

Months before his death, Rousseau brought together skills he honed through decades of painting despite public ridicule. He’d been disciplined in trying to improve his technique. He did not give up, even while having to scrimp at times to buy art supplies. And he kept letting his imagination run free. This paid off in what many consider his masterpiece, “The Dream.”

This painting earned the respect of the avant-garde artists, according to materials prepared by Washington’s National Gallery of Art about Rousseau.

“They may also have admired the allover precision of the painting, in which each component — the reclining nude, the wide-eyed lions, the abundant greenery — is rendered with equal weight. As the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire wrote, ‘The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year’.

Rousseau never approached the technical skill of Gérôme. The people in Gérôme’s paintings look as though they could step from the canvas into real life, not so with Rousseau’s.

And Rousseau never traveled as Gérôme did. Gérôme’s Orientalist paintings have been rightly criticized for creating false images of the Middle East and Ottoman world. But these paintings serve to some degree as kind of travelogues. Gérôme grounded them with fine details borrowed from direct observation. In the 1869 painting seen here, “Pelt Merchant of Cairo,” Gérôme includes both a realistic tiger skin and an example of the kind of helmet used during the Ottoman Empire.

But which painter has kept a greater hold on art lovers over time?

It is Rousseau, with his wild imagination and naive style that has remained oddly current.

For more on the sources used in writing this essay, see my bibliography of works consulted about the lives and works of European artists. Want to read about Rousseau’s first major commission? Click here and feel free to jump to the subhead The (Fake?) Countess, the Tax Collector and the Snake Charmer.

Journalist fascinated by art, food, justice, politics, history and business. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 60 nations.

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