The Magazine

Beautiful Dreamer

Henri Rousseau and the apotheosis of the Sunday painter.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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Henri Rousseau:

Jungles in Paris

National Gallery of Art

You know the type. He's the guy at your high school reunion who just quit his job (dull to start with) and cut loose from his family (wife deceased, kids farmed out to relatives) in order to devote himself entirely to his art. And when you see that gleam in his eye, you don't need to ask what kind of art. This type never wants to be a conceptual artist, exhibiting piles of toenail clippings or streaking through the financial district on a skateboard. Nor an installation artist, re-creating his own grungy bathroom in an even grungier downtown gallery. And definitely not a transgressive artist, running dead rats up flagpoles or nailing plastic Nazis to a cross. The Great Artist wannabe is typically just that--a Sunday painter with no real training, who earnestly believes that hard work and exalted thoughts will turn him into Titian . . . or at least, Bouguereau.

Did Henri Rousseau fit this bill? In a way, yes. It was definitely a clueless amateur who painted the dreary small landscapes of suburban Paris now filling one room of the Rousseau exhibition at the National Gallery. If you favor the postmodernist erasure of the line between high and low art, then you'll enjoy seeing daubs such as The Environs of Paris (1909), Banks of the Oise (1905), and Ivry Quay (1907) given the same royal treatment as the Venetian masters on display in the West Building. If you'd prefer not to see that line erased, then your reaction will be closer to that of the Paris Salon-goers who, accustomed to the lofty subject matter and polished technique of the Academy of Fine Arts, scoffed at Rousseau's doltishness.

At the same time, the early modernists--many of whom had been trained in the academic style, even as they spurned it--praised Rousseau's art as "naive," "primitive," even "folk," meaning that it was ignorant of anatomy and perspective. Picasso, who had mastered classical drafts manship under the tutelage of his father almost before he could walk, paid five francs for Rousseau's gawky Portrait of a Woman, and called it "one of the most truthful French psychological portraits." (It is probably worth remembering that five francs was chicken feed, and that Picasso was a Spaniard.) In 1908, two years before Rousseau's death, Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire threw a banquet in his honor, attended by a who's who of the Parisian avant-garde. Accounts of that legendary event differ, but the overall tone seems to have been part mockery, part affection for the guest of honor who, 20 years older than anyone else present, had never aspired to be part of the avant-garde.

This exhibition does a nice job of highlighting the mismatch between the modernists' embrace of Rousseau and his own somewhat deluded self-image. Modernism back then was not the insulting joke that postmodernism is today. On the contrary, Rousseau's fan club included some of the most significant artists of the 20th century. But Rousseau had little use for their work. His hero was Bouguereau, the ultimate academic painter, and he bragged of having received advice from two others, Jean Gérôme and Félix-Auguste Clément. But no advice, however kindly or condescendingly given, could substitute for the rigorous course of study enforced at the Academy. (For example, students were forbidden to touch a paintbrush until they had completed several years of figure drawing and accumulated an acceptable portfolio.)

Rousseau's self-delusion is perhaps best revealed in John House's contribution to the catalogue, which recalls him "submitting designs to the competitions for the decoration of several of the town halls in the Paris region-- those of Bagnolet, Vincennes and Asnières." As House adds, "town-hall decorations were perhaps the single most significant form of public-art patronage in France during those years." We can only imagine how quickly Rousseau's designs got shot down. And, ironically, how many tourists would now be trooping to any provincial town whose officials had been clairvoyant enough to commission a mural by Henri Rousseau!

Does this mean there's hope for our Sunday painter, even though his attempts at perspective give the viewer a migraine, and his renderings of the human body are, to quote Cole Porter, "less than Greek"? Perhaps--if he is immensely gifted, incredibly tenacious, and capable of following Rousseau's example, which was to find a way around his weaknesses, build on his strengths, and manage to live in the right place at the right time.