Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map





(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)


Henri Rousseau




Rousseau Henri

(see collection)

Jungle Cabinet

 In the year following the ambivalent success of  Myself. Portrait-Landscape, namely in 1891, the Salon des Indépendants presented a sensation which put everything else in the shade. This was the painting Surprise! which shows a cut-out picture tiger about to pounce amidst fronds of yellow, green and red vegetation. The result was moral outrage. The laughable newcomer Rousseau seemed to be associating himself with artists such as Delacroix who, since the Romantic era, had furnished colonial France with exotic themes. Is there indeed any sense in this "iconography"? Has the wild animal been caught in the storm, is it stalking some invisible prey, or does it simply illustrate the elemental force of nature in the wild? The press took a positive view of the Symbolism of the time and made favourable comparisons with Japanese tapisserie. Félix Vallotton, who later joined the Nabis, wrote in the "Journal Suisse" the first article commending the artist's innovatory powers: "Monsieur Rousseau becomes more startling every year,.. Moreover, be is a terrible neighbour because he makes everything around him seem like nothing. His tiger taking its prey by surprise should not be missed on any account; the picture is the alpha and
omega of painting ... It is always magnificent to see conviction of whatever sort given such relentless expression."

 Indeed there is no denying the radical consistency with which Rousseau pursued his aims. In this picture even more forcibly than in the woodland tryst, Rendezvous in the Forest of 1889, the observer is made aware of the "horror vacui" texture, perhaps attributable to the influence of the Gothic tapestry and weaving which had impressed Rousseau in Angers and in the Musee de Cluny. The composite ornamentation results in a faceted style which perfectly conceals any problems the artist might encounter with figure painting and space. The effect is achieved within the single plane.

 The post-Impressionist Avant-garde and Art Nouveau also sought ways of transcending conventional optics, attaching paramount importance to the inherent laws of art. It fell to Rousseau to provide the solution which eluded the more intellectual artists. He took as his starting-point the visible objects of extrinsic reality, and by according to each its truly distinctive character he won from Nature his own technique. The botanical leaf provided the basic structure, with endless possibilities of repetition, variation, senation and multiplication. The leaf guarantees the strict two-dimensionality which other more abstract artists could achieve only at the expense of meaning. Twenty-six versions of the jungle theme can be attributed to Rousseau with confidence. All except Surprise! were painted during the short period 1904-1910. Rightly or wrongly surrounded with an aura of mystery and naivete, the artist had found something on which he could build. He vied with the most accomplished theoreticians, and at the same time he preserved his own territory intact.

The Dream

 Each successive picture shows some further advance in quality of composition and imagination. Cane, oak, eucalyptus, lilac and banana plant, sanseviena, fern, palm, cactus and agave provide unending multiplicity of form. The palette includes fifty different shades of green according to Ardengo Soffici's analysis of the colours in The Dream. The characteristic collage style becomes more pronounced, with wild animals and their prey, combat between natives and lions or tigers, hordes of monkeys at play, gleaming orchids, lantcrn-hke oranges, red suns and white moons emblazoned in the green. The fine Gobelin texture of the landscapes suggests labyrinths of increasing density. The minute details of silhouette, trellis, cube and axis prevent the eye from resting on any central focus. Each part of the picture is given equal status, no part subordinated to any other. Disproportionate forms, abrupt changes of colour, backdrops brought into the foreground, all contribute to the complexity of the overall effect. These airless jungle scenes seem to hide more secrets than they reveal. Behind the green lurks bottomless black; blossoms of paradise reflect and veil the cruelty of the jungle.

The Dream, 1910 

With such precise definition of every detail the realism of these scenes takes on a structure at once abstract and concrete which was of great interest to the avant-garde that had developed since the time of Seurat. The analysis of outer reality gives rise to pure synthesis in the picture. Rousseau's intuitive discovery of his own method of representing absolute space, a multiplicity of viewpoints in a single plane, ran parallel to the early Cubism of Picasso, Braque and Leger.


The innovatory style of the jungle pictures brought a real breakthrough for the Douanier.

 In 1905 the Paris Autumn Salon showed the spectacular picture The Hungry Lion with the detailed subtitle:

 "The Lion being hungry throws itself on to the Antelope and tears it apart. The Panther waits in suspense for the moment when it, too, can have its share. Birds of prey have torn a piece of flesh from the upper part of the poor animal who lets a tear drop down its cheek. Sunset."


The Hungry Lion, 1905  
 Such excesses are said to have moved the critic Louis Vauxcelles to coin the term "Fauve" ("Tawny") for the uncompromisingly modern artists whose works were shown at this exhibition. In its issue of 4th November the journal "L'Illustration" reproduced the exotic landscape alongside works by Henri Matisse, André Derain, Paul Cezanne and Edouard Vuillard. Many admired this "hybrid between terracotta and fresco"; they commended its archaic planar style, compared it to oriental "works of antiquity, to Japanese masters and to prehistoric cave painting. The time was ripe for the primitive art which Alfred Jarry and Remy de Gourmont had preached some years before. While Picasso and Matisse took their bearings from African sculpture, Rousseau could be acclaimed as the genuine primitive of the age.

 He was seen in this light by artists, intellectuals, men of letters and patrons of the arts. In 1906 Jarry introduced Guillaume Apollinaire and Rousseau to one another with momentous consequences. In the same year the young painter Robert Delaunay sought the Douanier's acquaintance, and it was his influential mother, Berthe Comtesse de Delaunay, who commissioned The Snake Charmer in 1907. She in turn alerted the German art historian and collector, Wilhelm Uhde, and Matisse's pupil Max Weber to Rousseau's work. There followed what can only be described as a chain reaction in the most exclusive Paris circles. The gallery owner Ambroise Vollard, the Russian painter Serge Jastrebzoff alias Férat and his sister Helene von Oettingen, who wrote under the pseudonym of Roch Grey, the sculptor Joseph Brummer, Wilhelm Uhde and Robert Delaunay all bought Rousseau's pictures. He welcomed to the soirées which he gave from 1907 in his studio in the Rue Perrel 2 not only his neighbours and the parents of his pupils but also such luminaries as Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Francis Picabia, Maurice Utrillo, Constantin Brancusi, Jules Romains and Felix Feneon.

The Snake Charmer, 1907 

The Bateau Lavoir banquet of November 1908 that Picasso gave in honour of the Douanier has gone down in history. Round the focal point - the Portrait of a Woman that had just been purchased for five francs from a bric-a-brac shop - gathered numerous guests, among them Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin, Fernande Olivier (Picasso's mistress at the time), Max Jacob, George Braque, André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Léo and Gertrude Stein. For two hours everybody waited for the food that had mistakenly been ordered for the following day. In the event they made do with some fifty bottles of good wine and tinned sardines. Mildly intoxicated and without regard to the candle wax dripping onto his head from a coloured lantern, Rousseau played on his violin the popular strains and original compositions that he performed every year in the Palais Royal for the receptions of the Independants.
 Many stories have been told about this turbulent evening when the bohemians paid homage to Rousseau, "who now at last was recognised by society. Special importance must be attached to two incidents which indicate how the hero of the evening "wanted to be seen.

 On that November evening Rousseau allegedly said to Picasso: "We two are the greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian and I in the modern style." Moreover he raised no objection to Apollinaire's improvised poem with the opening verses:

"Do you recall, Rousseau, the land of the Aztecs,
The forests where mango and pineapple grow?
Where monkeys spill the red blood of the Pastecos
And the fair-haired Emperor was harried and slain?
— Your painting captures what you saw in Mexico -
Red sun in green banana leaves;
Hereafter the brave soldier's uniform, Rousseau,
You changed for the Douanier 's upright blue."

 In both cases the painter contributed to the fabrication of the legend. In a bizarre way the ambivalence between statement and silence is crammed with truth as well as fiction. He takes traditional models as his starting-point, yet his life and work flout tradition. There is compelling evidence that he was never in Mexico; during the years 1861 to 1867, when French troops were part of the expeditionary force sent to secure the coronation of the Hapsburg Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico, the young Rousseau was first a detainee, and then a volunteer with the home battalion in Angers. Yet he listened eagerly to the stories of returning soldiers and it was with the jungle pictures decades later that he strove for rehabilitation.

 His contemporaries, even his first biographer Wilhelm Uhde, were obliged for several reasons to give credence to the myth. For one thing, a cult figure of this sort lends itself to a neo-Romantic interpretation, exhibiting a flight to the exotic in the manner of Gauguin; the primitive can be seen as inhabitant of an earthly paradise. For another, Rousseau is almost obsessive in his attempts to make the jungle world of his imagination come true; he bestows on it a reality which drives out the external world, and with which he even deludes himself. It is said that while painting these green labyrinths he was sometimes so much in the grip of his imagination that he felt stifled and afraid and had to open the window.
 The Douanier embarked on the fascinating dreamland journey to the unending chain of experience which links Baudelaire's "Fleurs du mal" with the nineteenth century's yearning for nature and the exotic wilderness. There is ample documentation. In an interview published by Arsène Alexandre in March 1910 he confessed his fondness for the hothouses of the Jardin des Plantes. His figures, however, leave the botanical gardens behind them and wander unprotected through the garden of temptation. On a visit to Rousseau's granddaughter in Cherbourg in 1961 the former music pupil, Yann le Pichon, discovered the album "Betes sauvages" that was issued by Galeries Lafayette at the turn of the century. It is clear that the painter drew his animal motifs and even the figure of the keeper with the young jaguar from this album, probably with a pantograph, but his jungle picture transforms harmless play into a deadly embrace - the animal throttles the black silhouette.
Negro attacked by a Jaguar, 1910  

 Here, as so often in the jungle pictures, the predilection for violence suggests hidden turbulence in the artist's character: from a psychological viewpoint Rousseau is not the noble savage inhabiting a tranquil golden age in harmony with nature; rather he is the hard primitive described by Homer and Hesiod. Camouflaged by the Belle Epoque he lives out his individual battle against everyday civilisation and the constraints of his four walls. Untrammeled and irrepressible, he is impervious to convention. The exotic idylls of the Paris World Exhibitions and the lively illustrations of the "Journal des Voyages et des aventures de terre et de mer" or the "Magasin pittoresque" are metamorphosed into phantasmagoria. The wild animal is transposed from the menagerie to freedom. Domesticated tropical landscapes become devouring jungles. Aggression, eroticism and terror are brought into the open. Behind every leaf is the artist in disguise, balancing on the edge between fear of death and hope of peace.

A tangled jungle of fantasy and truth surrounds the trial in which Rousseau was involved from December 1907. Indicted as accomplice to the chief defendant, the young bank employee Louis Sauvaget, for bank fraud and forgery, he was condemned in January 1909 to two years suspended prison sentence. The sibylline outcome is veiled in mystery, like so many pieces of his legendary life. Had he not played the part of a simpleton, had the press not been well-disposed towards him, had he not had such influential friends, he might well have ended his days in a penal colony. Under the name of Bailly he had obtained 21,000 francs in cash for his partner from the Banque de France in Melun.

 Henri Rousseau closed his intriguing career with a renewed affirmation of faith in grand realism. In 1910 he explained his last jungle picture, and indeed his whole work, to the doubtful critic Andre Dupont: "The woman who has fallen asleep on the sofa dreams that she has been transported to this forest and is hearing the sounds of the snake charmer's music. That explains the motif of the couch in this picture."

Henri Rousseau

(see collection)

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