“We are the two greatest painters of the period, you in the Egyptian genre, me in the modern genre”.
This bold statement was made by Henri Julien Rousseau (1844–1910), an elderly painter from Gauguin’s generation whom everyone called “le Naïf”. It was made towards the end of 1908 to the young Picasso who was on the way to discovering Cubism! Even today it is considered a surprising declaration, and yet….
The reason Henri Rousseau (nicknamed Douanier Rousseau by Guillaume Apollinaire on account of the painter’s profession as a customs officer) had become famous at the Salon des Indépendants was that his paintings had become an attraction and the object of both public and critical ridicule. Picasso, on the other hand, immediately recognized Rousseau’s genius and in November 1908 hosted a dinner in Rousseau’s honour, attended by members of the art and literary avant-garde in his studio at the Bateau-Lavoir. In his reminiscences, the American painter Max Weber describes Rousseau at Madame Delaunay’s salon: “…a round-shouldered genial old man, small of stature with a smiling face and bright eyes, carrying a cane, entered the room. He was warmly received and one could see that he was pleased to find himself among so many friends and admirers”. He was seated on a chair placed on a chest “like a sort of throne”, but he maintained “great stoicism”, according to Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s companion. Poetry, alcohol and music played by Rousseau on his fiddle blended during this memorable soirée.
The episode was the apotheosis of Rousseau’s life, one scarred by family traumas since his childhood in Laval: the bankruptcy of his grandfather, the social regression of his father, the deaths of seven of his children – only his daughter Julia would survive – and his two wives, a permanent lack of money, and, later, problems in his love-life. After a second-rate schooling and five years spent in the French army, he became a modest employee at the Octroi in Paris between 1872 and late 1893, but his pension was insufficient to support both him and his art (in 1904 he was legally obliged to settle his debts with his paint-seller), so he began to give lessons in painting and music at his home. Despite all his efforts and the influence of the well-established Victor Pannelier, a fellow-Freemason, Rousseau never sold a painting to the State, nor to the City of Paris, nor even to the town of his birth; he failed in the competitions organized by the municipalities of Bagnolet (1893), Vincennes (1898) and Asnières (1900), and, in spite of a few late instances of improvement thanks to commissions or purchases by his neighbours, friends or the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, he was obliged to ask for help in 1909 from his friend Apollinaire.
Nonetheless, the continual difficulties he faced during his life did not spoil his happy and generous nature:
“He overflowed with love for all living beings and things and he had so much peace and sunshine in his heart that nothing sad could upset him”, wrote Wilhelm Uhde, Rousseau’s devoted friend as from 1907 and his biographer in 1911.
“It was by giving him my hand that I learned that an expression of cheerfulness will save you from all kinds of troubles. […] he began to hum the song Auprès de ma blonde, qu’il fait dormer”, recounted his granddaughter Jeanne.
Generously, he did not hesitate to accommodate his friend Alfred Jarry from August to November 1897 in his only bedroom at 14 Avenue du Maine, and also attempted to help the poor in his district of Plaisance by sending them to Victor Pannelier, one of their local councillors.
This “natural need in Rousseau to love and to be loved” (Uhde) is also manifested in the artist’s fondness for women and his unbridled search for a soul mate until the end of his life, following the deaths of his two dear wives, Clémence (1888) and Joséphine (1903), even though he confessed to having suffered severely emotionally.
“…my poor wife left this earth, so unfulfilling for some, after twenty years of a pure and sacred union during which we lived only for one another […] those twenty years were the greatest happiness of my life, therefore I was brave… Luckily, I loved all that surrounded me and with good reason…” (1907)
This exceptional gift for love and joy in no way compromised a deep and intense artistic practice.
“It is very interesting to find in his art the qualities of his soul and resemblances between his life and his painting”; “His passion for work, the strength and firmness of his will and awareness of his true value lift Rousseau out of the ranks of ordinary men”; “He did not have the temperament of a calm art lover, interested only in detail, but that of a hero whose will inclines at every moment towards the essence” (Uhde).
Baroness Hélène d’Oettingen (alias Roch Grey), Rousseau’s friend and biographer, wrote that at the end of his life he would doze off while painting and that when he woke up “his eyes would light up with youth, a love of life and gaiety, an inexhaustible source of love that blossomed in his dazzling lotus flowers, in his virgin forests…” (1922).
“In all my paintings, you can see sincerity, what I have always looked to achieve in my actions, as in my work”, he remarked, in spite of himself, when he was imprisoned in 1907 for having been involved in a swindle.
His “simplicity touching on extreme aristocracy” (Roch Grey) matched his uncommon gullibility, engendered by the fact that he “instinctively looked for the good side of everyone, studied that closely and ignored the rest…” (Uhde).
Although this credulity either got him into trouble or resulted in tricks being played on him by his painter companions – like Gauguin, who was well known for his practical jokes – and led to bad company that dragged him into prison, it had no effect on the power of his vocation, his imperturbable faith in his personal genius and his future success.
“You are wrong not to like my painting, one day you’ll have more than a hundred thousand francs worth!”, he assured his daughter Julia (as reported by his granddaughter).
Vlaminck remembered, “The public held their sides laughing before the paintings of Henri Rousseau. He, serene, wrapped in an old overcoat, was bathed with happiness […] He had no idea for a single moment that these laughs were aimed at him” (Portraits avant décès, 1943). “Dear Rousseau never wished to hear any jibes, though he was very susceptible to a compliment”, said Apollinaire. Rousseau couldn’t believe that certain rewards to be awarded to a person with the same surname as himself were in fact meant for anybody else but him: he had his visiting cards engraved with the title “médaillé de la Ville de Paris”, and had a badge signifying academic honours painted on his jacket in Myself: Landscape-Portrait (1890).
In reality, during his lifetime he only received a single official award, the one from the Académie littéraire et musicale de France for his waltz Clémence (1885), which he played himself in the Salle Beethoven.
Music was a favourite theme in his life: in his capacity as a violinist and composer, he brought life to the soirées that he held in his studio from 1907; he also wrote several pieces of theatre and poems linked to his paintings, and he made a wooden sculpture and a work in ceramic.
His total engagement with art and his appreciation of the poetical and emotional dimension of life together testify to the remarkably strong link that existed for him between life and art, as was hailed in 1948 by Tristan Tzara, a cofounder of the Dada movement in 1916.
Similarly, his unperturbed and unwavering confidence in his personal merit as a creator “whose thinking rises into the [realm of the] beautiful and good” (Portraits du Prochain Siècle, autobiographical entry, 1895) harmonized perfectly with his deep faith in God, the creator of all things, despite his anticlerical beliefs, which probably existed as a reaction to his mother’s excessive piety:
“God is everywhere, he sees everything […]. He will prevent those who love him from doing evil as they will fear him, as well as all the other spirits around him, the Spirit superior to everything, the quintessential Spirit” (1899).
Following the death of his son Henri aged 18, Rousseau turned towards esotericism. He frequented the Rosicrucians with whom he practised spiritualism, which he included in his painted works. In The Past and Present, or Philosophical Thought (1899), a painting he himself described as “spiritualist”, he shows himself with his newly-wed wife Joséphine, each of whom maintains a link of faithfulness with their first spouse as the boundary between the visible and invisible worlds, present and past, is only an illusion. Uhde relates that once, after Rousseau had had a nap, he took up the brush with a strange expression on his face: “Did you see how my hand moved?”, he asked […] it’s my poor wife who was here and was guiding my hand. […] Take heart, Rousseau, she said to me, this will turn out well!”
At the end of his life, he confessed, “Now I can no longer change my style, which I have developed through unrelenting work, as you can imagine” (April 1910).
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