Le Douanier Rousseau

                       Picasso with a human face


They gave a banquet for the old man in Picasso’s studio, and all the up-and-coming Paris art world was there, Gertrude Stein and everybody else. They set him up on a chair perched on a packing case like a throne, and he sat there stoically while wax dripped on his head from a lantern. They toasted him and recited poems in his honor and cheered wildly when he played a waltz of his own composition on his violin. They hugged him and told him how wonderful he was and made fun of him while they drank the place dry. (Picasso, who was in charge of the food arrangements, had given the caterer the wrong date, so the guests had to go out and forage if they wanted something to eat.) When the lantern caught fire, they told dear Henri Rousseau it had been planned as an ultimate tribute to his glory. As the party broke up in the far hours of the morning, he lurched up to the host. “Dear Picasso,” he said, “we are the two greatest painters of our time - you in the Egyptian style and me in the modern style.”

It was the kind of sublimely silly thing that dear old Henri Rousseau was supposed to say. When he didn’t produce a hilariously authoritative phrase like that, his young friends were glad to make one up for him. Every one had stories to tell about him, and no one was interested in historical exactitude. So most of the information that had been handed down about his life, both before and after that banquet of 1908, has been mythological. It has helped build up an image the world cherishes, of a sweet childlike old simpleton who happened to create beautiful pictures as artlessly as bird trills its song.

A trip to any museum where his pictures hang down the hall from the Picassos, will make clear that whatever elements of truth may lurk in this picture, it is hopelessly incomplete. Simple Rousseau certainly was, but he was no boob, he was a shrewd old bird at his moments, perfectly capable of pulling Picasso’s or any one else’s leg. The Rousseau myth was largely of Rousseau’s own making. It was he who got his admirers to tag him Douanier (customs inspector) though that was many rungs up the bureaucratic ladder from the post he actually held. In real life he was an “ambulatory clerk,” just about the lowest rung on the ladder, in the octroi, a service which from the Middle Ages through World War I collected tolls on merchandise being brought in through the gates of Paris.

It was Rousseau who provided his biographers with tales of his military service in the jungles of Mexico where Napoleon III had tried to set up an ill-starred Austrian archduke as emperor, and it was not revealed till many years after his death that he had never left France. Nor was there a word of truth in his story of how he had “saved the people of the city of Dreux from the horrors of civil war” in 1870, and how they had carried him around town on their shoulders shouting “Vive le sergent Rousseau!” The pale light of history reveals that he never made it beyond the rank of private and that he wangled a release from the army at the very start of the Franco-Prussian war.

Rousseau was the first of what has become a long line of artists called naive or primitive to be taken up by the intelligentsia and hailed as untutored geniuses. He differs from the others, like America’s Grandma Moses – first, in his incomparably greater native talent, and second, he did not work as they did, in lonely isolation. He lived in Paris at a time of unparalleled artistic ferment, when every few years saw the dawn of a new artistic revolution. He was acquainted with many of the revolutionaries, including such painters as Gauguin, Pissarro, Odilon Redon. Robert Delaunay would write encouraging comments about his accomplishments. Picasso and Braque came regularly to the musicotheatrical receptions he gave in his studio. He was a well known figure in the art world: the paintings he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants attracted crowds of visitors and extensive comment in the press.

It is true that the crowds often came to laugh uproariously at his creations, and the press clippings which he pasted faithfully in a big scrapbook contained exercises in cruelty and contempt. “Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet, with a blindfold over his eyes,” said one critic. And another said that nothing could be more grotesque that Monsieur Rousseau’s Suicide and his portraits, unless it was Monsieur van Gogh’s Starry Night. In 1885 when he first publicly showed his work at the official Salon des Champs Elysées, both paintings were slashed with knives by angry visitors, and the paintings were then removed from the show and put in with other refusés. There were newspaper stories about the slashings, and Rousseau cut them out and pasted them in his scrapbook with other items of interest.


  He was aware that he could not talk to his fellow artists on their own terms, as he was wholly unconcerned with the artistic theories over which they were continuously wrangling. He was very much a man of the people, with no formal training in art or anything else. He had been born in 1844 in Laval near Angers in western France. He followed various odd jobs, spent four years in the army, (and a month in jail for having misappropriated 25 francs when he was working in an attorney’s office) till he got the job that took him, for seventy hours every week, in dark blue uniform and with a useless sword at his side, to the toll-booths of the octroi. He was in his thirties when he began to devote himself to painting, at first on Sundays, then full-time when he gave up his job in 1893 and determined to live on his very modest pension plus what he could make giving music and art lessons to his neighbors in the Plaisance quarter of Paris.

His two wives, dearly loved both of them, both died. So did eight of his nine children. He found it hard to make ends meet. What kept him going was a solid simple faith, not in the Roman Catholicism which, as a Freemason, he despised, but in art and beauty and nature and the Third French Republic which allowed all these others to flower. Above all, he believed in the unique genius of Henri Rousseau, and this was strong enough to allow him to disregard the wicked barbs of the critics and the clamor of the bailiffs demanding payment of his bills for paints and brushes.

He realized from the start that he was a painter different from other painters. He admired the fashionable Salon painters, men like Gérôme, Bouguereau, Clément, painters of high polish and fantastic skill in capturing the rippling surfaces of the world. But his vision was at odds with their traditional approach. Although he had an exceptional sense of color and a sure eye for design, he chose to ignore the techniques which were the heart of nineteenth-century academic painting, the devices developed since the Renaissance to establish visual accuracy, including perspective and the use of light and shade to simulate a third dimension on the flat canvas. If he put several figures in a canvas, he distorted their scale, much as Picasso would do later. He saw no need to set the feet of his humans or the bases of his trees firmly on the ground, and he let them float in the air, or occasionally covered feet and roots with a band of green grass. He could draw a figure in profile, or staring straight at the viewer, and give it an impressive hieratic monumentality. But when he drew figures in motion, especially figures he had never laid eyes on – a jaguar attacking a native, a tiger attacking a buffalo, a gorilla attacking an Indian (it would take later scholars to point out that gorillas and Indians do not live on the same continent) – he found it simpler to copy them from books or magazines.

Perhaps he could have learned all those naturalistic techniques. He had, after all, won a prize for drawing when he was a schoolboy. As a copyist in the Louvre he learned how to do creditable imitations of clouds by 17th-century painters, and he scattered them through his skies. The preliminary versions of landscapes which have survived show that when he was outdoors looking at nature he could turn out very accomplished impressionist sketches. But when it came to painting the final version, another hand - on one occasion he said it was the hand of his deceased first wife – seemed to take over, the forms stiffened, shapes swelled or shrank or skidded across the surface to assume the pattern of awkward inevitability which is the hallmark of all Rousseau’s world. The paintings became primitive – primitive in the way the word was understood in the late nineteenth century, meaning the style of painting before the Renaissance, before the discovery of perspective and other illusionist techniques.

This primitivism was perhaps a conscious strategy on his part. “If I have kept my naiveté,” he wrote once in a letter, “it is because Monsieur Gérôme and Monsieur Clément always told me to keep it.”

If they really gave him this advice, he was wise to follow it. He could never have painted the academicians because he did not see the same things they did. While they were content to reproduce what was under their noses, the things Rousseau saw were rearranged and transformed in his mind into intensely visions which he then transferred to his canvas with a directness, a freshness, a “lyrical exaltation” as one of his Italian admirers put it, that rarely fails to arouse enthusiastic admiration or ribald laughter – sometimes the two together – from bemused and delighted spectators.

He transferred these visions as literally as he could – that is why he could refer to himself quite seriously as “one of the leading realistic painters of the day.” When the creative sap was running strong, he could be so sure of his final effect that he would his colors in one at a time, first green, then red, then blue. He often painted his backgrounds first, leaving spaces for the figures. When his friend the American painter Max Weber asked him he wasn’t leaving too much space for the dog in one painting, he replied, ,”No, that it the way it has to be.:

When he looked at himself with his mind’s eye, what he saw was not a seedy old man with a drooping white mustached but a noble figure with a black bushy beard and great floppy artist’s beret, a decoration in his buttonhole which had really been given to another painter named Rousseau but which the Douanier assumed was intended for him, holding a paintbrush like a sword of justice and a palette inscribed with the names of his two wives. There was no need to anchor this figure’s feet to the ground, so there was no protective band of grass; the artist seems ready to float upward toward the balloon in a sky filled with beret-shaped clouds - a giant looming over all Paris and a couple of lilliputian strollers on the quay. Most artists of that day considered the Eiffel Tower an abomination, but Rousseau in his grand simple way took it as a triumphant symbol of that modern style of which he was himself the leading representative.

When he was doing his portrait Galium Apollinaire for The Muse Inspiring the Poet, he used to hold up a tape measure to the poet’s face to make sure to get the right measurements between mouth, eyes and chin and so on. For all that, the result was many removes from a photographic likeness (although Apollinaire insisted that everyone recognized him when the picture was exhibited). When it came to the Muse – Apollinaire’s mistress, the painter Marie Laurencin – all thought of likeness must have been abandoned early on, Marie Laurencin was proud of her figure, sylphlike as any of the charmingly decadent girls whose portraits made her reputation. When she saw herself bloated up to the size of a Wagnerian Valkyrie holding up an impossibly long arm in the gesture of a priestess invoking prehistoric gods, she was indignant. Rousseau brushed off her complaints: “Apollinaire is a great poet, so he needs a big Muse!”

Ambroise Vollard, the prominent Parisian art dealer, asked him once how he got the effect of air circulating between the plants in one of his jungle paintings. “By observation of nature,” he replied. He loved nature, he used to spend hours sketching trees and meadows and flowers. But nature took a curiously crooked path getting onto his canvases. A young writer named Yann le Pichon was taking music lessons from the Douanier’s grand-daughter in Cherbourg. One day she showed him an album of engravings of animals published by the Galleries Lafayette department store, and he was amazed to find jaguars and tigers and spoonbills which were perfectly familiar to him because he had seen them in her grandfather’s paintings. His subsequent investigations turned up a treasure trove of printed matter which Rousseau had employed as a visual repository for subject matter in his canvases: postcards, advertisements, almanacs, magazine illustrations, photographs, reproductions of paintings by famous artists. He rarely took over one of these source materials by itself. His imagination preferred to fuse individual items together, no matter how wildly incongruous they might look to the prosaic eye, and freeze them in a trancelike state.

This was the way he painted when he began, and he never varied in any significant way. In one of his earliest known paintings, A Carnival Evening, which was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1886, the clown may reflect the influence of Watteau’s famous Gilles in the Louvre, the clown’s girlfriend perhaps was taken from an advertisement for chocolates, the lacy tangle of branches in the trees from a postcard photograph of the Bois de Boulogne. They all fit together in a moony atmosphere which is the Douanier’s own.

In his last painting, The Dream, finished the spring before he went to the hospital to die in 1910, the nude on the couch was inspired by a Felix Vallotton painting which had hung next to one of Rousseau’s in an exhibition in 1905. The couch came from the artist’s studio. He drew on illustrated natural history sources for the lions and birds and monkeys, the snake and the elephant. He used to spend whole days soaking up tropical atmosphere in the hothouses of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, but the spiky leaves and monstrous flowers of this painting are derived directly from plates in encyclopedias and botanical textbooks.

Yet he was never the prisoner of his sources. He reserved the right to modify or transform them at any time to fit them into his formal or emotions designs. The huge picture War,.which hung at the Indépendants in 1894, apparently derived its inception from a drawing used to advertise a penny-dreadful novel called Le Tsar. But the bearded stately Russian figure of the original has been turned into a demented sexless whiteskirted figure, riding side-saddle on a crazed black horse, brandishing a sword in one hand and a torch streaming black smoke in the other. The horse may be copied from Géricualt except that its head has been flattened out to look more like a reptile’s. The naked bird-pecked corpses on the battlefield below may have their source in the fourteenth-century tapestries of the Apocalypse which Rousseau could have seen as a child in the cathedral of Angers. The blighted landscape, the broken trees, the sulfurous reds and blacks, came out of the artist’s imagination. Altogether they form an extraordinary whole, partly ludicrous, partly terrifying, as vivid an emblem as has been devised of the horror and folly or war. Gauguin once commented that no one had ever used black so effectively as Rousseau, perhaps after he had seen the flying tail of the horse in this painting, or the flying hair of the rider.

Many of the other great names of modern art – Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Robert Delaunay, Kandinsky – expressed their approval or admiration. Yet it cannot be said that Rousseau ever achieved the recognition in his lifetime that he would have wished. No crowds ever carried him through the streets shouting Vive le sergeant Rousseau! Most of the shopkeepers to whom he gave paintings to cover unpaid bills rolls them up in their attics and sold them to junk dealers when they cleaned out their houses. When the dealer Wilhelm Uhde put on the only one-man show Rousseau was ever to have in his lifetime, not a single person came, because Uhde had forgotten to put an address on the invitation.

But there was also Picasso, who might joke about sacred things and cast a sardonic eye on society at large, but who always took art seriously. To his acute eye, Rousseau was an artist. He was not, Picasso once wrote, “an accident. He represents the perfection of a certain order of thought. The first of the Douanier’s works that I had the opportunity of acquiring took hold of me with the force of an obsession. I was going along the rue des Martyrs. A bric-a-brac dealer had piled up some canvases outside his shop. A portrait head protruded from the pile, the face of a woman wearing a stony look, with French penetration and decisiveness and clarity. The canvas was immense. I asked the price. ‘Five francs,’ the man said. ‘You can paint on the back.’ It is one of the most truthful of French psychological portraits.”


He was getting a good income from sales toward the end of his life, in addition to his pension and fees for lessons, but he was always broke, or said he was. He was always ready to aid a needy neighbor, and he squandered considerable sums buying gifts for Léonie, “a coarse dirty shopgirl” said his friends, in his vain efforts to persuade her to become his third wife. He once received a thousand francs from a friend who sent him fake identity papers and a forged draft to withdraw 21,000 francs from a bank. He went dutifully to the bank and spent a month in jail as a result, but he got off when his lawyer passed around reproductions of his work to the jury and convinced them that his client was hopelessly naive, a childish nut. He did not tell them that he had invested his thousand francs thriftily and sensibly enough in a government bond.

In 1910, during summer vacation when nearly everyone was out of town, he neglected a scratch on his leg. It became infected and finally gangrenous, and he died miserably in a hospital attended by only a few friends to whom he fretted that young Robert Delaunay, following one of the latest artistic fads, was breaking up the Eiffel Tower on his canvases. A careless clerk in his hospital marked him down as dead of alcoholism, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave.

His faith in himself, unmoved by ridicule or neglect, had remained solid to the end. Hold on to the paintings I have given you, he said to his grandchild, “they will be worth a hundred thousand francs.”

He was too modest a prophet. These days, when a Rousseau is fished out of an old attic, it sells for millions and ends up in a museum. Generations of painters have revered him as one of the pioneers of modern art. The public has learned to take in its stride the bizarre distortions of scale, the childlike fixity of vision, the arbitrary colors which so shocked the first viewers and have become the commonplaces of painting. People have learned to respond directly to Rousseau’s directness. “I like to make my paintings smile,” he said, and art lovers tired of the intellectuality and solemnity of so much twentieth-century art enjoy smiling back. Maybe the old boy was right after all. When the crowds shuffle through the halls of the museums where all the great revolutionaries have come to a somber rest, they stare dutifully at the contortions of the Demoiselles of Avignon. But they stop for a happy smile, or perhaps a horse laugh, in front of the Sleeping Gypsy. For the newer generations, Picasso is already receding into a classical, you might say an Egyptian past. Henri Rousseau keeps his freshness, He is both up-to-date and timeless, he is in your face and over the seas and far away, he is a genuine Old Master of what we still call the modern style. ©1985 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine February 1985