Artists are often told to work from experience, to relate what we know. There is more to knowledge and experience than physical reality, however. When it comes to inspiration, the inner life of dreams and fantasies is as valid as our external story, and often more striking. It is the play between our perceived reality and our imagination that stirs creativity. For some artists, that play stays closer to their everyday life, while for an artist like Henri Rousseau, it ranges far into the realms of dreams and fantasy.
The famed primitivist painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born May 21, 1844 in Laval, France, roughly 200 miles southwest of Paris. His father was a tinsmith. In 1851, the family fell on hard times financially and lost their home, forcing Rousseau into boarding school. When the family moved to Angers in 1861, he took a position as a clerk for a local bailiff, putting him on track to be a lawyer, but had to take refuge in the army when he “committed a small perjury.” While in the army he met officers who had served in Mexico and was captivated by their stories of exotic locales, which took root in his fertile imagination. He was released from the army upon the death of his father in 1868 and moved to Paris with his mother, whom he was expected to support. He took a job as a clerk for the government, eventually becoming a tax collector in the Paris toll office. At the age of twenty-four, Rousseau married Clémence Boitard, the fifteen year old daughter of his landlord. The couple would have six children, but only one, Julia, would survive to adulthood. It was a hard life, but Rousseau made it bearable by teaching himself how to paint.
In 1886, Rousseau exhibited A Carnival Evening, not at the famed Paris Salon as he would have liked, but at the first Salon des Indépendants, which showed work considered too avant-garde. Any artist could exhibit there, regardless of pedigree or training. The flatness and childlikeness of his painting were ridiculed heavily by critics and academic painters, who dismissively called him Le Douanier, the Customs Agent. There is a cartoonishness here which was unacceptable to the artistic establishment, but there is also a poetic dreaminess of form and composition that inspired future symbolists and surrealists.
Rousseau’s wife died in 1888 after a long illness, and this made him throw himself even more deeply into painting. The 1891 Salon des Indépendants saw the first of his jungle beast paintings, Surprised! or Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Observers thought he had served with the French Army in Mexico–a fantasy Rousseau did not contradict and even, perhaps, encouraged–but the truth is he never in his life set foot outside of France. Countless trips to the botanical gardens, museums and zoos of Paris as well as to exhibitions from French colonies paired with an active imagination sufficed to create his most famous paintings. His flora and fauna are stylized, his beasts often strangely shaped or wearing odd expressions, but these quirks only add to the mystique of his style. One should note that he was fond of stuffed dioramas, especially those at the Paris Natural History Museum, and often patterned the beasts in his works after them. This explains some of the idiosyncrasies. He also painted Parisian scenes, vases of flowers, and portraits, but his strange talent showed the most in his bold jungle and desert scenes, filled with lions, tigers, monkeys and snakes. I think he must have felt more at home with the world in his head, which was far from the drab world of a tax collector. In 1893, at the age of forty-nine, Henri Rousseau retired from government service in order to pursue painting full time.
Rousseau was always on the edge of poverty and supplemented his pension by playing the violin on street corners and taking odd jobs, selling paintings when he could. He married Josephine Noury, a widow, in 1898. Young avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Weber, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Constantin Brâncusi, Georges Braque, Alfred Jarry, and Guillaume Apollinaire were drawn to Rousseau. Picasso, upon purchasing one of Rousseau’s paintings, met the man and later held a banquet in his honor. Always an egoist, Rousseau responded, “We are the two great painters of this era; you are in the Egyptian style, I in the modern style.” Despite the growing recognition he received, he remained an eccentric figure. He was increasingly impoverished and unwell and spent some time in jail for bank fraud. In 1910 he developed an infection in his leg, which he ignored. Gangrene set in and Henri Rousseau died a painful death at the age of sixty-six. The Salon des Indépendants held a retrospective of his work in 1911 and Rousseau’s influence and fame grew with his passing.
His audacity and his ability to codify and create his own imagery, an imagery that was so different from any other artist of the time makes Rousseau a giant of modern art, as well as one of my favorite painters. Without his willingness to break the rules and to do so persistently, the modern art movements of the early 20th century would have moved much more slowly and cautiously. Like his beasts, who sometimes leer from the shadows and sometimes tear into one another, Rousseau’s far flung boldness of form, color and subject matter wins the eye and delights the mind. I think perhaps the beasts that inhabit his paintings are a reflection of his tremendous ego and gutsiness, which were both cartoonish and sincere. They were what his art required of him to escape the jungles of his poverty and lack of formal education.
Why did you paint a couch in the middle of the jungle?
Because one has a right to paint one’s dreams.