Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map





(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)


Henri Rousseau


Exoticism and Rousseau

The myth of Exoticism captivated the minds of many avant-garde artists and writers as the 19th century drew to a close. It represented an escape from bourgeois society, with its declining spiritual values, and an urge to travel to distant lands uncontaminated by progress in order to pursue a more natural, "savage" lifestyle. Following in the wake of
Gauguin's move to Tahiti, Kandinsky travelled around north Africa, Nolde sailed to New Guinea, Pechstein explored China, and Klee and Macke spent time in Tunisia. The French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) pursued this same ideal in his quest to capture a spirit of innocence. While still very much rooted in French city life, and for many-years a conventional man, he nevertheless projected images of an exotic world of magic and freshness. Known as "Le Douanier" because he worked for the Paris customs service until 1893, he was an untrained painter. However, amid much criticism and controversy, the exclusive intellectual elite of late 19th-century Paris at the end of the century claimed to understand the "hedonistic mystifications" of symbolism in his work. Rousseau worked within a climate that borrowed elements from African sculpture and contrasted them with Greek classicism, achieving a style that was unpretentious, shunning facile mannerism and the pretentious intellectualism of "art for art's sake". Rousseau made a name for himself as a primitive artist through the Salons des Artistes Independents, to which he was invited in 1886, and gained widespread recognition from 1904 to 1905, when he embarked on his "jungle" scenes, such as Explorers Attacked by a Lion and The Hungry Lion, the latter shown at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 in the room of the Fauvists. He was adored by literary figures, such as Alfred Jarry, whom he had painted in 1894, and Apollinaire, to whom he dedicated The Muse Lnspiring the Poet in 1907, as well as by other painters such as Robert Delaunay, whose mother commissioned The Snake Charmer in 1907. He was also a composer of songs, which he performed at the banquet given by Picasso in his honour in 1908.

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A Carnival Evening


"Nothing makes me so happy as to observe nature and to paint what I see. Just imagine, when I go out into the countryside and see the sun and the green and everything flowering, I say to myself, 'Yes indeed, all that belongs to me!' "
                                Henri Rousseau



 On 18th August 1886 a spectacular e opened its doors to the public, in the temporary premises of the Pans Post Office Headquarters on the Place du Carrousel. It was organised by the Société des Indépendants, a group of independent artists founded two years earlier by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and others. Some fifty works were exhibited, all of which would have failed miserably in the eyes of the official Salon and would have scandalised even the small circle that supported Impressionist painting. The organisation was revolutionary in that there was no jury and no imposition of stylistic criteria. For a fee of fifteen francs any artist could participate, with or without academic training or aesthetic philosophy.


A Carnival Evening, 1886  
 The exhibition took up Gustave Courbet's challenge and declared the field of art a democratic one, open to all comers. Two pictures caused a sensation: Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Ile La Grande Jatte, a composition in contrasting sections of dotted primary and complementary colours, and the night scene, A Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau, the little toll collector whose contribution to the Salon des Refuses in 1885 had caused many viewers to laugh till they cried. Although some few critics were well-disposed and ascribed to both artists a spontaneity comparable to that of pre-Renaissance Italian art, sharp distinctions were drawn between the two. Seurat was seen as an intellectual, as the potential leader of a new movement and inventor of the pointillist technique which provided a scholarly response to the problems of Impressionism, Rousseau as an amusing innocent, who disregarded all the refinement or French painting and all the achievements of optical illusion. He demonstrated neither consciousness of the history of art nor the bracing experimentation of a modern daredevil but only the canvas itself - a surface on which he outlined and coloured with meticuluous care a white moon, clouds against the deep indigo of night, black tracery of bare trees, a transparent woodland pavilion and a couple in fancy dress, hovering like figures straight out of a Belle Epoque chocolate advertisement.

This puppet theatre on canvas is a key work, initiating as no other work could have done the mystical career of the Douanier and the pictorial anarchy of post-Impressionism. At the age of forty-one Henri Rousseau appeared upon the scene in just so surprising a manner as his harlequin. Undated, like his little figures, he held his place among the avant-garde for twenty-five years alongside Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and others. He was thought bizarre, an ambitious painter with the inadequate technique of a six-year-old. His pictures won acclaim as jokes. His works could be relied on to raise a laugh, even when they were hung in obscure places by the committee of the Independants, or when in 1907 Frantz Jourdan, president of the Autumn Salon, relegated them to the less prestigious section devoted to decorative arts. Rousseau gained a reputation gradually year by year, but it was a kind of succes de scandale, and some artists who were striving for new perceptions began to lose patience. It was only by appealing to an artist's agreed right to exhibit without the approval of a jury that Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was able to save Rousseau from exclusion by the Independants in 1893. The American Max Weber reported that his teacher Henri Matisse passed over any mention of Rousseau in frosty silence.

 When at sixty-six Henri Rousseau died of blood-poisoning, he was listed in the Necker Hospital records as an alcoholic, but he at once became a legend, the "gentle Douanier", as Guillaume Apollinaire named him, the "angel of the night-life quarter" (Montparnasse). His is the simple and yet incredible story of an unworldly petit bourgeois who painted in an introverted, almost autistic manner. He himself cannot have been fully aware of what he was doing; he did not distinguish between his pictures and reality, and in art as in life remained gullible to the end. It is clear that, as he ceaselessly attracted public attention, such eccentrics of the fin de siècle as Alfred Jarry, Paul Gauguin and Guillaume Apollinaire saw him as a kind of talisman and living proof of the ideas with which they sought to combat bourgeois ignorance and blinkered values. It is no less clear that Rousseau played along with the intellectuals' game, as his first biographer, the German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde, surmised in 1911 and the historian Henry Certigny confirmed fifty years later; he shaped his own naive persona partly in self-defence and partly to gam the recognition he craved.

 The following anecdote, though it may be apocryphal, is typical of Rousseau's muddled circumstances. As so often, his fellow artists thought up a practical joke at his expense; they sent him an invitation to a reception at the residence of the President of the Republic. On his return Rousseau told them that guards had prevented him from entering the building, that the President himself had come out and tapped him sympathetically on the shoulder, saying: "Too bad, Rousseau, that you are wearing everyday clothes. You see that everyone else is in evening dress. Come another time". Extravaganzas of this sort made the best of a bad job, but behind the good-humoured clown's mask there was another face.

In 1895 Rousseau presented to the publishers Gerard et Coutances a biographical notice and a self-portrait in pen and ink as a contribution to the projected second volume of "Portraits of the Next Century". The drawing is of an apparently unremarkable old man, shabbily dressed, who turns to face the observer with faun-like features reminiscent of Paul Verlaine's. His eyes are in sharp contrast to the wearily sagging shoulders. His gaze is keenly perceptive but also mistrustful, fearful, kind, manically ecstatic and introspective, alternating between tragedy and comedy, a physiognomy divided in two. At this time Rousseau was fifty-one years old, but the psychographic portrait matches the descriptions given by contemporaries such as Gustave Coquiot, Arsene Alexandre, Robert Delaunay, Wilhelm Uhde and even the police records of 1907.

 Rousseau's dual personality made him at once kindly and childish, roguish and intolerably malevolent, and inscrutable to a degree that suggests an inner life of suffering. Indeed, his life resembled a game of hide-and-seek. He served as a toll collector for the City of Paris for twenty-two years before retiring early in 1893; he never commented on the fictitious inspector's title "Douanier" which the public bestowed on him. He encouraged the persistent legend that he had been a member of the overseas forces helping to bring about the coronation of the Hapsburg Maximilian of Austria in Mexico, and that he had saved the city of Dreux from civil unrest during the Franco-Prussian war. The fact is that at the time in question, in 1863, he was serving a juvenile sentence for stealing the paltry sum of twenty francs from his employer in Angers, the advocate Fillon, and for the duration of his voluntary military service with the 51st infantry regiment he stayed at home, far from any scene of battle.

Self-portrait, 1895

 He took every opportunity to mourn in public the death of his first wife Clémence, who died of tuberculosis in 1888 at the age of thirty-seven. On festive occasions he regularly played the waltz that he had composed for her during her lifetime. He hardly ever mentioned the deaths of four children of this marriage, or his daughter Julia, the only child to attain adulthood. When he was prosecuted in 1909 as accomplice to a certain Louis Sauvaget on a charge of embezzlement and forgery, and given a two-year suspended prison sentence and fined one hundred francs, lie strove for recognition as a respectable citizen. He presented himself as a patriot, as "father of the poor", as honorary drawing teacher at the Association Philotechnique, a philanthropic institution for education of the people founded in 1848, and stressed his earlier role as father of the family, who had cared for the sick in addition to working a sixty-hour week. Above all he insisted on his pressing obligation to paint, and it was in this connection that he made a point which touches his life's deepest complexities: "If my parents had recognised my gift for painting . . . today I would have been the greatest and wealthiest painter in France." In the biographical notes of 1895 he had written: "... since his parents were not well-to-do, he was compelled at first to follow another path, rather than the one to "which his artistic disposition inclined him. It was only in 1885 that he began to work as an artist, after many disappointments, alone, with no teacher except nature, and with occasional advice from Gerome and Clement." These pronouncements suggest that throughout his life Rousseau suffered from a feeling of inferiority - afraid that without academic training he was bound to remain an amateur painter. The tendency to blame his parents was probably caused by the shock he experienced as the gifted nine-year-old son of a respected family of skilled craftsmen, merchants and officers, when his father lost all they possessed - three houses and a business - through speculation. The social decline of the parents had serious consequences for Rousseau. His schooling, with its poor results, his military service and his time as toll employee, promised no prospects. The only escape route lay in art, and he was encouraged in this direction by his Paris neighbour Felix-Auguste Clément, winner of the Prix de Rome, who had started from humble beginnings. Taking up the challenge, Rousseau found a way of offsetting all his dreams of material wealth and social recognition. In spite of the continual risk of mockery, he exploited every opportunity to rise out of anonymity. Alongside the intellectuals, the dandies, the provocateurs of his time, he divided his existence between the uninfluential milieu of the poor and the aggrandisement of the artist who knows how to turn each slight of fortune to his own advantage.

 Part of the Rousseau legend lies in the obscurity of his beginnings as a painter. He repeatedly maintained that he did not pick up a brush until he was forty or forty-two, but in 1884 he had obtained a licence to copy in the state galleries, the Louvre, the Musée de Luxembourg and the palaces of Versailles and Saint Germain-en-Laye, thanks to a recommendation submitted by the artist Clement to the Minister of Education, Armand Fallières. In 1886 he contributed to the Salon des Independants for the second time. The events of these years put him in the public eye, and must have been preceded by earlier attempts at painting, but it is impossible to reconstruct exact details since his manner of painting was soon imitated by others, and he was constantly re-working and re-dating earlier canvases.

 The two hundred pencil and chalk drawings which have survived from the years up to 1895 are informative. They seem to be the work of a self-taught artist who would sketch his surroundings at work or undertake excursions outside the city in his leisure hours, The Quai d'Auteuil, one of the numerous Seine ports, and the city gates were among the locations where Rousseau inspected incoming supplies of wme, grain, milk, salt and methylated spirits, and issued passes. The two views of 1885, which focus on a rural suburban idyll almost entirely -without human figures, demonstrate the layman's exclusive interest in simple, visible reality. Rousseau was concerned to transfer to his canvas the three-dimensional configuration of tree and fence, toll house and tenement, with great care and without foreshortening. His purpose was to show things as they were commonly perceived, which meant that a fence must consist of a row of identifiable posts, while the foliage of a tree must comprise innumerable tiny elements. House, wall and reinforced river bank must give evidence of the building materials' texture and of the principles of construction, whereas clouds were to be seen as intangible silhouettes.

 Since it was Rousseau's intention to match what he saw with the facts as he knew them, there was no cause for him to seek to impose the spatial rationality of linear perspective which had prevailed since the Renaissance. It was equally impossible for him to establish an individual style which lessened the importance of what he saw and knew to be the nature of things. Mysteriously, Rousseau must have been able to produce conies of nicrures such as the Lion and Tmer minted bv Eugene Delacroix in 1828/29, since one was hung in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts retrospective in 1885. The moderately successful copy is accurate and professional in the use of materials and perspective, which suggests that the painter may have made a deliberate choice in not conforming to convention - a consideration which would make the so-called "naivité" of his art even more of an enigma. If there was a deliberate choice, then it was taken on intuitive rather than on theoretical grounds.

Port Saint-Nicolas.
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale
  In the evening view of Ile Saint-Louis as seen from the Seine port of  St Nicolas, today's Port du Louvre, the two-dimensional area of the picture prevails over the perspective of the left side (View of the Ile Saint-Louis seen from Port Saint-Nicolas).
Painted by another hand, or by Rousseau copying from another picture, the cobbled and rutted quay with its navigator's hut and the shadow cast by the distant exciseman display a familiar concept of space, in which things are arranged according to distance and relative size as on a receding stage. By contrast, the cargoes unloaded on the quay, the barges, the iron architecture of the Pont des Arts, the houses and the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the island, all contribute to an effect of unfamiliar and mysterious density.

View of the Ile Saint-Louis seen from Port Saint-Nicolas, 1888
Nothing is just itself. Cool blue-green transforms the piles of cargo veiled in tarpaulin into a gleaming moonscape of strange transparency. The piers of the bridge hover over the seemingly frozen river without supporting the structure above them. The lights reflected in the water take on an existence of their own, independent of the bright gas-lamps to which, by rights, they belong. The ships' masts with their little tricolor pennants reach upwards into the clear evening sky, in harmony with the Paris rooftops, chimneys and towers, but without spatial reference to the bridge. Liberated from the everyday bustle which Emile Zola's hero Claude Lantier experienced at this very spot, the metropolis becomes a picture of peace. Into this still life, the little exciseman Rousseau paints himself centre-stage, on the borders of day and night, of outer and inner reality, dreaming and keeping watch over his idea of beauty.

 This tightrope walk between optical impression and visionary outcome explains why both traditionalists and avant-garde agreed, albeit for different reasons, on the label "naive" for the creator of this magical other world. Both used the picture in their reflections on what was possible in the realm of painting, and on the historical development of aesthetic theory. In the face of such theorising it is indeed tempting to see Rousseau as the embodiment of the grass-roots artist unencumbered by cultural baggage. His interest is always directed immediately and impartially to the object before him. Method, style, his own distinctive mark are subordinated to his perceptions. His concern is with precision, with the meaningfulness of detail rightly observed.
Since he was no master of linear perspective, and yet desired to convey the familiar illusion of space, the objects painted in the View of the He Saint-Louis undergo an involuntary planar transformation. Lacking central focus, the individual items are aligned with equal prominence alongside one another. The flat surface itself begins to take effect as an elementary system of axes and diagonals. The carefully linked crosswise ornamentation of the bridge's balustrade introduces a strong horizontal element into the composition, which is balanced by the many vertical lines of towers, funnels and masts. Intuitively the Douanier ceases to "open a window on reality" and paints his way into the tradition of surface and segment. Camille Pissarro, who with Odilon Redon was one of the first to admire the artist, attached great value to this spontaneous creativity, which, in his opinion, replaced studied technique by true feeling.
Eugene Atget
Toll Station Porte de Vanves
Paris, Musee Carnavalet

An early peak of intuitive achievement was the highly unusual Toll Station, usually dated 1890. With this unspectacular view of what was simple and close at hand, Rousseau celebrated his workplace, one of the numerous toll stations on the fortified city wall extended under Louis the Sixteenth. There is a similar photograph taken by Eugene Atget: midday rest has settled on the border between city and country, where one seems to merge into the other. There is no trace of the hectic metropolis behind the hills. The gates are open, but time seems to stand still. The toll collectors doze at their posts, fixed to the spot, immobile as the lamps.

Toll Station, 1890

Rousseau himself conceded that his superiors in the toll service gave him an easy time so that he could work better; the still life structure reflects these circumstances. The responsible and yet ridiculous position of the little official who becomes for an instant all-important consists for the most part of sitting and waiting in readiness. Driven in this way to meditation and self-forgetfulness, Rousseau became absorbed in the beauty of his surroundings. The gate stands strangely without function amidst the greenery which is interrupted only by the buildings of brickyard and village. The brick wall rises, railings, cypresses and chimneys are aligned, while all else is submerged in glimmering foliage as under the eye of a new Vermeer. In this timeless setting the inspection of the vehicle loses prime significance. Imperceptibly the border idyll is transformed into a dream of the world's edge. The paved road is replaced by grass and narrow footpaths, denying access to the gate.

 This picture, small in format, is a further key work. It contains the barrier motif, sign of twenty-two exhausting years of service, determining the whole course of Rousseau's life, a metaphor of the tightrope-walker's power and lack of power. Formally the picture yields an astonishing synthesis between pure perception, a preoccupation of the Impressionists, and the flat constructed surface sought by the post-Impressionists. The light green suggests air and vibrant light, but without actual realisation of either, since the entire canvas is taken up with the thick and flat application of paint. The landscape presupposes precise observation of nature, without concessions to the fleeting moment. Like Seurat, and like Gauguin and the Pont-Aven circle, Rousseau derived from visible reality the principles of densely balanced composition reaching to the very edges of the picture. The tree becomes an element of design, matching the structure of fence and railings. For the sake of balance the artist "discovers" a white window in the wall and puts the areas of sky and grass in proportion to one another. Every detail is an essential part of the composition. Yet this totality is achieved without the imposition of a rigid system, since Rousseau lets his perception of the object determine his manner of painting - dotted, planar or linear. Unlike other artists of the time, notably Cézanne, who was only five years his senior, Rousseau did not attach prime importance to method; rather he allowed several forms of expression to co-exist in a single picture, and let what he saw become the determining factor. His thinking followed the rules of two-dimensional composition with ease, which helped him to persevere and to achieve consistency, as did his readiness to accept the advice of the Salon painters Felix-Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gerome, namely that he should let nature be his only teacher. He painted what he saw, the way he saw it, undisturbed by nagging intellectual doubts or aims.

The upright seriousness with which Rousseau regarded visible reality and followed the leadings of his heart, for instance in the subjective portrait of his first wife Clemence (The Walk in the Forest, 1886), could irritate his consciously modern contemporaries.


 In 1909 the art critic Arsene Alexandre wrote in the journal "Comoedia": "With will alone the good Douanier Rousseau could not have done it. If this touching allegory had been intended, if these forms and colours had been derived from a coolly calculated system, he would be the most dangerous of men, whereas he is surely the most honest and upright..." These words remain an apt indication of the fascination exerted by an artist who by following his natural disposition "naively" achieved intuitive compositions that an artist given to theory could have achieved only by means of great labour, having first to escape the trammels of rational thought.

The Walk in the Forest, 1886

Henri Rousseau

(see collection)


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