Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map





(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)


Henri Rousseau




Rousseau Henri

(see collection)


The Liberty of Art


 Pablo Picasso, who got to know the Douanier's painting by 1908 at the latest, but most probably around 1905, is reported as saying: "There is nothing odd about Rousseau. He is the most perfect representation of a distinctive and immutable logic". This opinion is in marked contrast to the still prevailing view of Rousseau's naivete as a consequence of lack of professional skill.


The picture Myself. Portrait-Landscape of 1890, which was important to Apollinaire's circle, to Robert Delaunay and to the Dada movement in Berlin, may be seen as a clear statement that the "genius of the people" was not inclined to make concessions to optical conventions. Without regard to the surrounding minutiae Rousseau positions his own superdimensional figure centre-stage, in the middle of his painting as of his world. Again he chooses the port of St Nicolas, but this time his back is turned to the Pont du Carrousel. This posture and the size of the figure are vital to the interpretation of the picture. Three years before his voluntary retirement the forty-six-year-old Douanier was making an unmistakable declaration of his dedication to art. Figuratively and factually ke was leaving behind him the Cargoes that had to be inspected every day, to take up his position on an imaginary axis stretching from the Louvre to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, rising up so high into the sky that he outgrows the Eiffel Tower and nears the balloon in its ascent.

 There is a deliberate renunciation of perspective. The smallest details and the dominant colour, black, serve to emphasise Rousseau's claim to be a painter of the first rank. Within this framework, at least, he is determined to make his dream of success and social ascent come true - he, who would like to be "the greatest and wealthiest painter in France", who towards the end of his life, m 1907, still yearned for eventual fame and recognition not only in France but also further afield. In a spirit of patriotism he includes in his picture two emblems of technical achievement in France, the hot-air balloon and the Eiffel Tower, the controversial world wonder of 1889 that only Seurat had thematicized before him, in the previous year.

Myself, Portrait-Landscape , 1890 

 These two motifs function as heroic attributes for the central figure, which in the original design was even larger. The series of national flags - most of them freely invented, except for the tricolor and the Union Jack - create in the background a kind of garland for the painter, with the promise of international esteem. Clothed in dignified black, he hovers in collage style in the world of his imagination which matches precisely the townscape of Paris. So concrete is his notion of the icon-like self-portrait, reminiscent of the notions of late mediaeval artists, that he updates it autobiographically over the years. On the artist's palette one may see written the name of his wife Clemence, who died in 1888.

 Alongside it there appears the name of his second wife Josephine, whom he married in 1899. In 1905 he decorates his lapel with the "Palmes academiques", an honour received in error. "When this work was exhibited in the Salon des Independants, Paul Gauguin, tired of pointillism, allegedly exclaimed: "There is truth . . . there is the future . . . there is the very essence of painting!" In this picture Rousseau indeed achieves a remarkable synthesis of form and colour which defines in its own terms the modern style as planar juxtaposition in all its purity. Moreover, he makes radical use of black, which had been banned since Impressionist times, and in so doing he clearly rejects optical illusion. Most surprisingly of all, in making a familiar object into an autonomous element within the picture he is a forerunner of Pop Art. He entrusts to the brush of his alter ego the red with which his own hand has painted the flags on the canvas.

 The proud inventor of the Portrait-Landscape maintained a dogged and uncompromising stance towards the public, and it is not only in his dreams and desires that an explanation is to be found. Behind the self-portrait, and behind many of his other works, lies an avowal of faith in the French Revolution, which includes an clement of sentimental nationalism.

A Centennial of Independence

The picture A Centenary of Independence of 1892 celebrates the people's dream of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity which the Eiffel Tower and the Paris World Exhibition of 1889 had made visible far and wide. The composition reflects the ideology of the Third Republic, intent on consigning to oblivion the crises of 1870/71 - the defeat by Prussia and the bloody civil strife of occupied France and the Paris Commune. The profession of faith in the proclamation of human rights was repeated emphatically in the painting The Representatives of Foreign Powers coming to salute the Republic as a Token of Peace of 1907. The vividly coloured group portrait has as its theme the union of all peoples and worldwide peace in society. On the platform the painter brings together the heads of state of the European monarchies and the Emperor of Ethiopia, the Czar and the Shah of Persia, all of whom have come to pay homage to the Republic. Rousseau presents himself as the most patriotic of patriots, and does not forget the six presidents of the Third Republic or the representatives of the four colonies of Madagascar, Equatorial Africa, Indochina and North Africa. The ring of dancers in the background is a variation on the dance motif familiar from the earlier Centenary of Independence and it draws attention to the memorial to the free-thinker Etienne Dolet (1509-1546), which was dedicated to the City of Paris as a symbol of freedom of opinion.

The Representatives of Foreign Powers coming to salute the Republic as a Token of Peace, 1907

These two pictures, which provoked inordinate laughter, are testimony to Rousseau's republican views. He is also said to have been a freemason, a pacifist and - like many an urban petit bourgeois - an adherent of revolutionary movements. Pride in the political role of the people and a desire for democratic equality for the benefit of all determined his thinking and provide clues to many puzzles. Both these pictures, and the self-portrait, reflect something of the ambience of the Paris World Exhibition of 1889, an unprecedented apotheosis of peace and progress undertaken under the auspices of the French nation. Rousseau's lifelong love of new technology and of the brilliant colouring of flags, uniforms and costumes, in which red and black were prominent, will have led him to share the euphoria of the French politician and philosopher Jules Simon: "Here there are no more disputes between political philosophies and nations, we are all citizens of the Eiffel Tower!" Moreover, both pictures were conceived with a view to obtaining public commissions. In 1893 Rousseau submitted a landscape and a second version of A Centenary of Independence to the competition for the town hall in Bagnolet.

 Yet political allegory is not all that the Douanier is striving for in these compositions. He is declaring himself a republican in art. In his autobiographical notes he demands "full creative freedom for the artist whose inspiration is for the beautiful and the good", and these pictures are ample evidence of his refusal to conform. In the self-portrait he entirely ignores the familiar in order to develop further his montage technique. He draws on sources from popular culture of the time. The ring of dancers in A Centenary of Independence is copied, presumably by means of a pantograph, from an illustration in the "Petit Journal". The likenesses in The Representatives of Foreign Powers are taken from an almanac and combined with uniforms to create stiff figures reminiscent of fairground or photomontage dummies. The template-style application of local colour isolates one item from another, rather in the manner of pre-Renaissance painting, and creates an array of figures without perspective, two-dimensional, almost abstract. The narrative motifs become structural components. The added details give these scenes a rhythmic sense of joyful ornamentation, matching on a large scale the patterns on the little flags. The pictures take on the quality of a frozen rainbow. They anticipate the placard-style trivia of collage artists such as Max Ernst.

 With his colour puzzle of 1892 Rousseau entered into competition with the intellectual avant-garde, which is indicative not only of his ambition but also of the self-assurance that he, the lay painter, had by that time acquired. He drew sustenance from praise ostensibly accorded him by Puvis de Chavannes (though possibly the visitor was Paul Gauguin in disguise): "Mr. Rousseau, as a rule I do not think highly of the gaudy colours favoured here by the Indépendants, but yours I like very much because they are right." Rousseau concluded: "He was thinking of my 'Centenary of Independence'. In the paper lanterns alone there were sixty-two different tones."

 To paint in the right way - later he was to use the term "upright" -was the Douanier 's aim. Was he unwittingly naive, because there can be no external criterion of rightness in art? Or was he concerned to paint pictures that were understood, an endeavour in which the formal experiments of the time had no place? In the latter case he could be seen as a painter who followed the traditions of popular folk art by conviction. There is some truth in both propositions. The claims made in 1890 were still valid in 1906 when Rousseau painted his ambitious work Liberty inviting the Artists to take part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Artists Independants. The democratic message expressed in the picture's serial structure, with an accompanying note of pride in the City of Paris, is an invitation to peoples of all nations to join together in free creativity, almost in the sense of Joseph Beuys' slogan "Every man is an artist". The Lion of Belfort promises victory to all those who, like Valton, Carriere, Willette, Luce, Seurat, Signac, Ortiz, Pissarro, Jaudin and Rousseau, take up the cry for freedom of creation. The allegory of Liberty hovering in the sky seems to be modelled on Coysevox's monument to Glory in the Tuileries. Beneath the city flag in the colours, as it happens, of the Salon des Indépendants, Rousseau shakes hands with founder-member Signac. Something of the revolutionary spirit of the bloodily quelled Commune of 1871 is still in evidence among the Indépendants. Rousseau showed his work regularly at the Salon, with the exception only of the years 1899 and 1900, but for others, too, this association of artists was the best and the most legitimate because it accorded equal rights to everyone. It was not long before the Salon was flooded by lay painters. Nor was it possible much beyond 1890 for the French government to ignore the activities of this liberal forum, of which the original and truly amazing Douanier was a worthy representative.

Liberty inviting the Artists to take part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Artists Independants, 1906  

Henri Rousseau

(see collection)

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