What was Henri Rousseau thinking?

You know the one:  the painter called sloppily ‘Le Douanier’, the customs officer, when he was really a much more lowly figure, a mere toll collector on a river.  (He painted a scene of his working life at least once.)   The Sunday painter, ridiculed and played jokes on by his more fêted acquaintances –  among them Picasso and the somewhat-famous-for-being-somewhat-famous Apollinaire –  who didn't have a career in painting full-time until he was 49.  

Curious thing:  In Paul Johnson’s gorgeous and wonderful book, Art: A New History (792 pages, published in 2003), he mentions all manner of obscure and sometimes narrowly talented artists, but he has not a word to say about the quite well-known Henri Rousseau.  No words at all for Le Sunday Douanier.  I have to wonder why.  It’s as if he believes that Rousseau joined naive art to fashion art and created a sensation, without creating fine art along the way.  But that’s just a guess, based on my reading of Johnson’s book and what I know of Rousseau.*

Detail from The Sleeping Gypsy

Detail from The Sleeping Gypsy

Rousseau is a peculiar case, I think.  On the one hand, he produces pictures that we all like (or did:  he's been wallowing in turf à la Richard III for quite some time now, minus the death in battle).  His Un Soir de Carnaval (‘Carnival Evening’) is somehow magical, and The Sleeping Gypsy is arresting and affecting -- the up-tipped lion’s tail, to my eye, has an erotic frisson.  It’s a distinctly aroused lion's tail, and as such it may be the only one in the history of art.  To see a Rousseau painting is usually to remember.  They are not easy paintings to forget.  That is tribute enough.

And yet.  (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)  

This is Portrait of A Woman, from 1895.

This is Portrait of A Woman, from 1895.

Have a look at Rousseau’s portraits, his faces of men and his faces of women.  What do you notice?  They look remarkably similar, don’t they?  The men and women, I mean.  The women aren’t exactly notable for their gracile, glabrous, and  graceful looks.  Despite the fleshless, dark 19th-century dresses, they look distinctly mannish.  And the men?  They look like versions of Henri Rousseau.

But why?  Was Rousseau aware that most of his figures – apart from young children, which themselves look oddly heavy-set – resemble him to a greater or lesser degree?  What did he mean by painting them that way?  Was this an expression of his egotism (which one cannot escape believing he had, for good and perhaps for ill, as far as art was concerned)?  And even when the figures don’t look conspicuously like him, why do they look like clones of each other?  Consider the painting called ‘The Football Players’ (Les joueurs de football), from 1908.  The men in orange and cream stripes are on one team and have round heads with ginger hair.  They look alike and they’re on the same team.  The men in blue and grey stripes have dark, slightly wavy hair and matching dark handlebar mustaches, and they’re on the same team.  Get it?  Because we all know that when you play on the same team, you instantly transmogrify into one another.  You also, to judge by the picture, are much more susceptible to the pull of the galaxy than to the gravity of your own planet.  Never mind that, despite the title, the ball they’re playing with belongs to rugby.  ‘The Football Players’ is a cheerful and jolly but otherwise completely bizarre picture. 

This is another lady, two years later. 

This is another lady, two years later. 

Some might say that Rousseau was a self-taught and greatly talented artist, whose talent lay in his devotion to the artist’s way of seeing and to the fresh vision that an artist can create.  It was not, at bottom, a technical talent, however methodical and painstaking.  (And anyone that was willing to create ‘The Dream’ and his various jungles was clearly taking pains.)  But it’s not enough just to call Rousseau ‘naive’, because he’s more than that.  There is a grandeur about his work, a kind of hubris even, that allows him to reach for the transcendent – to reach for paradise – regardless of whether he can actually, visually, deliver it with his brush.  At the heart of Rousseau’s paradise there is greatness.  And at the heart of that greatness is Rousseau.  I would wager that Rousseau was thought of as a small man by almost every person he ever met, and his art is his means of negation.  Whether he was right or not is another question.  Many people have asserted their heroism, virtue, or loveliness only to be, in any sharp observer’s eyes, wrong.

Paul Johnson gives Rousseau a miss, but he does discuss a brilliant woman painter, whose name was Artemisia Gentileschi.  From a draughting standpoint, and in the handling of paint, perspective, and composition, to say nothing of subject matter, there is no comparison between the Italian and the French toll collector.  She is, artistically speaking, a bella ragazza.  But in life she was greatly overweight, according to Johnson, and this shows up in her painting.  He says that her main burden, artistically, was that the women she painted were projections of herself, and largely resembled her:  big-boned, apparently tall, well-fleshed and solid.**  I have not seen enough of her paintings to confirm his judgement, though I doubt that Johnson would make such a claim if it could easily be disproved.  I have seen a lot of Rousseau’s work, and in his case the canvas-as-mirror assessment certainly rings true.

*I even wrote to Mr Johnson, who invites questions at his home address in the book, but got no answer.

**I would give the page reference if half my library were not boxed up and inaccessible.  Gentileschi can easily be found in the index, however.

Like a witch on a broomstick:  detail from Carnival Evening

Like a witch on a broomstick:  detail from Carnival Evening

A book you might like on the subject:  The Banquet Years:  beautifully written, bursting with insight, and generally fascinating.  I found the sections on Rousseau and Alfred Jarry particularly compelling and unputdownable.