The French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) pursued an ideal in his quest to capture a spirit of innocence. While still very much rooted in French city life, and for many-years a conventional man, he nevertheless projected images of an exotic world of magic and freshness. Known as “Le Douanier” because he worked for the Paris customs service until 1893, he was an untrained painter. However, amid much criticism and controversy, the exclusive intellectual elite of late 19th-century Paris at the end of the century claimed to understand the “hedonistic mystifications” of symbolism in his work. …
Henri Rousseau was beginning to receive a measure of serious recognition. In 1905 his “Hungry Lion” was hung in a central room of the new Salon d’Automne, along with paintings by Derain, Vlaminck, Rouault, and Matisse. Rousseau described his painting: “The hungry lion throws himself on the antelope and devours him. The panther anxiously awaits the moment when he, too, will be able to have his share. Birds of prey have ripped pieces of flesh from the poor animal who pours forth his death cry! Setting sun.”
Probably with Rousseau’s canvas in mind, one critic derided this roomful of flamboyant colorists as a cage of wild animals- thus giving birth to the term “fauves” , by which they would forever after be known. A few of the more advanced dealers were beginning to buy his work, although in his own lifetime none of his paintings ever fetched more than a few hundred francs. Young artists like the American Max Weber came to his studio to watch him paint. His Saturday “soirées familiales et artistiques” , at which artists and writers mingled with his pupils and neighbors, became famous. And in 1908, there took place an event that gave meaning to the Douanier’s struggles as nothing else could: the “banquet Roussseau”.
Some of its participants undoubtedly thought of it as a put-on; most-and it is to their credit- conceived of it as a very real tribute. With the passing of time, it has come to be looked back on nostalgically as a celebration, not only of one man’s work, but of a whole era-”la belle epoque” of modern art. The banquet was organized by Picasso in his Montmartre studio; the pre-text was his finding of a ten-year-old Rousseau portrait in a second hand shop. The evening began riotously. The dinner guests arrived drunk; the dinner did not arrive at all: the host had given the caterer’s the wrong day. Finally, Apollinaire appeared with the guest of honor; the Douanier ( Rousseau) held his cane in one hand, his tiny violin in another: “his old face broke into a smile.”
Rousseau played one of his own compositions on his violin. Apollinaire improvised a poem that began: “You remember Rousseau, the Aztec landscape…” Two young poets scuffled in the coatroom. Apollinaire’s mistress, the painter Marie Laurencin, sang. Georges Braque played his guitar. Ladies danced to he Douanier,s violin. Laurencin tripped on some pastries. Hot wax from one of the decorative Chinese lanterns dripped constantly on the old man’s head, but he apparently never thought to move. After a while he fell asleep, and by the time Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas- the two American ladies were the only two guests to arrive in evening clothes- excorted him home in a cab, “a great caul” of wax had formed over the back of his head. The party continued on into the morning.
The banquest had provided a fitting climax to the Douanier’s life and, had it been a novel, he should have died then and there. Fortunately for us he did not. In the last two years of his life, Rousseau painted feverishly and produced some of the most important canvases, among them “The Dream”,”Football Players”, and “Negro Attacked by a Jaguar”. But his career was very nearly
short when, as a favor to a former music pupil, he allowed himself to become involved in a petty swindle. Rousseau was guilty as charged, but his lawyer got him off by a clever demonstration of his client’s simple-mindedness: “You have no right,” he said in conclusion, “to condemn a primitive.” The court proceeded to show more leniency than many of the Douanier’s critics.
On a hot day in August of 1910, Rousseau’s friend Wilhelm Uhde knocked on his door. The Douanier “lay on his bed, ghastly pale. There was a painful sore on his leg. He was so apathetic that he didn’t even brush away the flies which buzzed around his face, but he did talk of getting up soon and going on with his painting.” He was infected with gangrene, apparently the result of an attempt to bleed himself. “He used to do this,” the painter Robert Delaunay discovered, “because his blood was turned by worry.” A few days later, Rousseau died in a hospital ward, alone. He was buried in a communal grave- a treatment reserved for paupers.
The story of Henri Rousseau does not quite end with his death. Immediately after, unsold paintings in his room were auctioned to pay his funeral expenses. They brought no more than a few hundred francs. Two years later Uhde helped to arrange for an exhibition of the Douanier’s work and spent considerable time trying to locate lost paintings. He discovered one, an “early picture of a young woman in red walking in a spring wood,” in the flat of a laundress; the painting had been used as a fire screen. The woman sold it to Uhde for what she considered to be an outrageous price: forty francs. Uhde found Rousseau’s daughter in Angers married to a traveling salesman. She owned only a single small picture: “The others, I was informed, had ‘luckily’ been destroyed.
But already things had begun to change. By 1914, one of the jungle scenes sold for 9,000 francs. Forgeries began to appear-”proof of impending fame,” as Uhde said. When the war broke out, the whole of the young German dealer’s collection was conficated, and he was deported. It was ten years before he returned to Paris; he discovered that the asking price of his red lady in the spring wood was now 300,000 francs. This was only the beginning.
In 1953, “The Dream” was bought for the Museaum of Modern Art in New York for more than $100,000, and a few years later the Guggenheim Museum paid $103,600 for “Football Players”.No one bothers to dispute their place in modern art. The Douanier is taken for granted- it has come to that.
In March 1910, the critic Arsene Alexandre interviewed Henri Rousseau in his Montrouge studio, where the artist was working on one of his jungle pictures. As he was about to leave, the critic noticed an extraordinary canvas entitled Le Present et le Passe , which he described for his readers. The image is autobiographical; it shows Rousseau and his second wife, both smartly dressed, in a landscape setting. Above the heads of these figures hover the ghostly presences of their former spouses; at the foot of the painting a poem is inscribed that explains how the couple will remember their lost loves. Noting Alexandre’s interest, the Douanier added his own comments. ‘It is a philosophical painting, said Henri Rousseau to me, ‘it is a little spiritualist, isn’t it?’
The 1910 Montrouge interview introduces the idea that the artist was interested in spiritualism, or was of interest to spiritualists, but it is just one of several occasions on which his name appeared in conjunction with a reference to the supernatural. Art historians have ignored such references, attributing them to the anecdotal aspects of the Rousseau myth, yet they are significant. The subject of ‘Rousseau and spiritualism’ merits attention because it can be used to illustrate broader trends in the Douanier’s critical fortune. These ‘spirit’ anecdotes are one of the richest examples of how art writers tackled the new interpretative difficulties that Rousseau’s work presented; they are some of the clearest articulations of how the Douanier was seen as ‘different’.