And the greatest beauty you could clothe your body with
Are the gilded gems of staying power
Like traces of molten gold fusing through your cells
That which has the capacity to overcome, endure, persevere
And stay ever faithful to the soul beneath the person
To the spirit that cauterizes the flames
No matter what
And forever more
I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men (sic) create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.
― W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
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 Sleeping Gypsy, 1897
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.
A Carnival Evening, 1886
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.
Surprised, or Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891
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.
Seine and Eiffel Tower in the Setting Sun, 1910
Exotic Landscape with Lion and Lioness
Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo, 1908
Apes in an Orange Grove, 1910
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.
The Snake Charmer, 1907
The Waterfall, 1910
Mandrill in the Jungle, 1909
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?
We must do everything we are obliged to do; give without reckoning, practice virtue whenever opportunity offers, constantly overcome ourselves, prove our love by all the little acts of tenderness and consideration we can muster.
—Therese of Lisieux
What seems to me to be happening is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it — assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.
Health is not simply the absence of illness. Real health is the will to overcome every form of adversity and use even the worst of circumstances as a springboard for new growth and development. Simply put, the essence of health is the constant renewal and rejuvenation of life.
Here is a link to the NBC News spot that covers the opening of the Houston Grand Opera season in the brand new Resilience Theater in George R. Brown Convention Center. I was happy to speak about my beloved company and to share the roller coaster ride we have been experiencing since Hurricane Harvey.
Then you my goddess with your immortal lips smiling
Would ask what now afflicts me, why again
I am calling and what now I with my restive heart
Desired: Whom now shall I beguile
To bring you to her love?
Who now injures you, Sappho?
For if she flees, soon shall she chase
And, rejecting gifts, soon shall she give.
If she does not love you, she shall do so soon
Whatsoever is her will.
Come to me now to end this consuming pain
Bringing what my heart desires to be brought:
Be yourself my ally in this fight.
Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity.
—Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod