Landscape with Bridge

"Landscape with Bridge"

Self-Portrait in a Landscape

"Self-Portrait in a
Landscape," 1889-90
57 x 45, Národni Gallerie,

Gypsy Asleep

"Gypsy Asleep"
1897, 52 x 80
Musuem of Modern Art,
New York

The Merry Jesters

"The Merry Jesters"
1906, 57 x 45
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Past Masters:
Henri Rousseau - In a World of His Own

The following excerpts are from Rousseau (text by Martin Green, edited by David Larkin for Ballantine Books, 1975):

Henri Rousseau, a sometime solicitor's clerk and ex-soldier, retired at the age of forty-one on a small pension from the Customs department, to devote himself to the art of painting and to the greater glory of France. . . .

Rousseau's first dated painting was executed five years before his retirement from the Customs; after this short apprenticeship and only a year as a full-time 'artist-painter,' as he styled himself, he exhibited his first painting at the Salon des Indépendants.

The Salon des Indépendants was formed by a group of disgruntled Impressionists and other painters, partly to cock a snook at the academic establishment but also to enable any painter, without having to submit his work to a jury of dullards, to show his paintings alongside those of his contemporaries. . . .

Two crucial meetings in his life affected not only Rousseau, but the lives of those whom he met. These were with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who celebrated Rousseau in his verse and whom Rousseau painted; and with Alfred Jarry, the bohemian author of Ubu Roi. . . .

Jarry acted as a catalyst. He immediately commissioned Rousseau to paint his portrait -- a portrait he used for target practice, only his head finally surviving on the canvas. Alfred Jarry was a native of Rousseau's home town, Laval; he was a midget of a man who lived in a room to measure. He gave Rousseau an intellectual existence and integrated him into a world of artists, a world that Rousseau could only have dreamed about. Unlike many of the other painters, such as Gauguin, who played merciless practical jokes on the apparently naïve Rousseau, Jarry befriended him in a practical way by giving him shelter in the Boulevard de Port-Royal when he had the bailiffs on his heels. Alfred Jarry's regard for Rousseau's art was genuine, and he saw the he had his 'roots in himself' as he said, whereas his brother artists would have had him barred from the Salon des Indépendants, but for the intervention of Degas, who supported him. . . .

With such recognition as was accorded to Rousseau through his exhibiting at the Salon, his work broadened into more exotic fields than those normally associated with purely primitive or naïve art. He painted jungles, wild animals, lions, tigers and monkeys. There was a legend that Rousseau had gone to Mexico in the French army sent by Napoleon III to aid Maximilian, where he was supposed to have acquired first-hand knowledge of these exotic jungle backgrounds. There was no foundation for this legend, though he had been in the army at that time. It was well known among his acquaintances, however, that at this period he made numerous trips to the Paris zoo and botanical gardens. . . .

In the last years of his life Rousseau came into his own as a painter. Max Weber recalled Rousseau's appearance at the elder Madame Delaunay's salon: 'a small, modest figure, with a sweet piping voice and the simplicity of a child. This was the man who represented in the flesh what the young sophisticates had named le style concièrge.'

It was the fullest period of his life. The dream had come true. He found himself at the center of the most advanced group of artists and writers in Paris, admired and recognized by the intellectual world. . . .

When his second wife died, ending their short-lived marriage, he fell madly in love with a widow ten years younger than himself, a Madame Léonie, on whom he squandered such money as he had. She was, like himself, of the petite bourgeoisie, and at first encouraged Rousseau in his hopes. Her family, however, took a dim view of [him], and Léonie, who held a job in a department store, severed relations with him. Rousseau was a romantic, as a painter and in life, and he took his dismissal seriously. He went away broken-hearted and returned later with a self-inflicted wound in his leg. The wound became gangrenous and Rousseau died in a Paris hospital on 4 September 1910 at the age of 66.

Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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