by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée de l'Orangerie
Henri Rousseau's ''Old Junier's Cart'' (1908).

Rousseau's Wide Circle of Devotees

By Roderick Conway Morris
Venice 29 July 2015


'The avant-garde was full of yearning for a lost paradise and Rousseau came at the right moment,' the critic Waldemar George wrote in 1931. 'Fifty years earlier or later he would have gone unnoticed.'

Henri Rousseau, apparently an entirely self-taught painter, was born in Laval, in western France, and moved to Paris in 1868. He was in his early 40s when he first exhibited two paintings in Paris. His seemingly clumsy and naïve efforts were ridiculed by the critics, but they caught the eye of a fellow artist, Paul Signac, who invited him to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants in 1886.

Thereafter, while the public remained mostly indifferent to Rousseau's peculiar but engaging works, they became increasingly valued by the avant-garde. It was not until after his death, in 1910, that his paintings received wider attention and began to command high prices.

Much has been written about the relationship between Rousseau and the avant-garde — admirers included Picasso, Robert Delaunay, Félix Vallotton, and the writers Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire. But 'Henri Rousseau' at the Doge's Palace here is the first major exhibition that sets out to demonstrate the extent of his appeal and influence in avant-garde circles, not only in France but also in Italy, Germany and beyond.

The exhibition, curated by Claire Bernardi and Laurence des Cars, is arranged thematically rather than chronologically and comprises 34 of Rousseau's works and 67 by other artists. It continues in Venice until Sept. 6 and travels to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in March 2016.

Jarry, a friend of Rousseau's also from Laval, was an early champion of the artist and gave him the mock-serious nickname 'Le Douanier' (The Customs Officer). In fact, Rousseau served as a toll collector in Paris until he retired in 1893 to devote himself to painting. In 1884, with the help of a neighbor, the academic painter Félix-Auguste Clément, he obtained an official permit to study in the city's museums, including the Louvre.

Though he had no formal art education, it was the academic artistic establishment that Rousseau aspired to join, his decidedly unacademic style notwithstanding. And he did receive some encouragement from those quarters, notably from Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme, both represented in the opening section of the show. As the artist recalled in a letter of 1910, 'If I have preserved my naïveté, it is because Monsieur Gérôme, who was a teacher at the Academy, and Monsieur Clément, who was director of the Academy in Lyon, always told me to do so.'

The jungle scenes, now the most instantly recognizable of all Rousseau's works, were painted late in his life. The artistic inspirations that lay behind them were multiple, including elements from the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Post, Delacroix, Géricault, Manet and Gauguin. But their primary source was Rousseau's visits to the hothouses of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and 'Bêtes Sauvages,' a children's book advertised on the cover as containing 'about 200 amusing illustrations of the life of wild animals.' (A copy of the book is on display here.)

Some of the finest of these large canvases, which are at the same time lushly beautiful, mysterious and dreamlike, have been gathered here from collections in Chicago, Philadelphia, Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Though he had no ambitions to revolutionize art, as many in his growing circle of avant-garde artist friends were striving to do, Rousseau always considered himself 'a realist painter' and a modern artist, aiming to represent his contemporary world as it was, with its telegraph poles, pylons and factory chimneys. The skies above some of his rural landscapes, focusing on the outskirts of Paris — half a dozen of which are on show here — are adorned with such modern machines as a biplane and an airship.

Rousseau's still-lifes represent a typically idiosyncratic contribution to the genre and were clearly studied by other painters, as is illustrated by the juxtaposition of his own works and examples by Redon, Morandi, Cézanne, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Antonio Donghi. One of Rousseau's last still-lifes, dating from 1910 and displayed here, was commissioned by the painter Ardengo Soffici, a key figure in promoting the artist's name in Italy.

No artists were more enthusiastic about Rousseau than Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and the other members of the German group Blaue Reiter, a relationship examined in a whole section of the exhibition, with significant loans from a dozen collections that reveal the profound impact the Frenchman's works had on these artists.

In the first show held by the group in 1911, Rousseau's 'The Poultry Yard' was given place of honor in the first room, with a laurel wreath hanging below it. It had been bought by Kandinsky, who kept it for the rest of his life. (It is now on loan from the Pompidou Center in Paris.) Also on display is the Blaue Reiter Almanach, which came the following year and contained more reproductions of works by Rousseau than by any other artist, including Kandinsky, Marc, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Delaunay.

In 1908, Picasso picked up Rousseau's 'Portrait of a Woman' of 1895 in a junk shop in Montmartre for a few francs, and to celebrate held a banquet in his studio in the artist's honor. Among the guests at what turned into a riotous occasion were Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Max Jacob, Maurice de Vlaminck, Alice Toklas, and Gertrude and Leo Stein.

The painting, on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris, serves as an introduction to the last rooms of the show devoted to other full-length and group portraits by the artist, among them 'To Celebrate the Baby' (1903), 'The Wedding' (1905), 'Old Junier's Cart' (1908) and his delightful 'The Football Players,' which was almost certainly inspired by the first international rugby match between England and France, in the Bois de Boulogne in 1908.

Along with these are works by other artists — like Delaunay, Carlo Carrà, Becker, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera — that attest to the longer-term resonance of Rousseau's canvases among artists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Henri Rousseau. Doge's Palace, Venice. Through Sept. 6. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. March 22 through July 17, 2016.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023