Henri Rousseau’s work defies classification; his paintings, like his artistic career, are highly individual. Born into a modest family from Laval, Rousseau was a self-taught artist, described an “amateur painter” by his early biographers. He worked for many years at the Paris city toll and was therefore somewhat inaccurately dubbed Le Douanier (customs officer) by his friend Alfred Jarry. He began to paint at the age of about forty. He had no formal training, but sought to learn the rules of official painting from artists such as Gérôme, his erstwhile neighbour Clément, and Bouguereau, whose “flesh tone” he admired. In 1884, he obtained a copyist’s permit for the Louvre. He also visited the Musée du Luxembourg and Versailles.
However, Rousseau followed no rules besides his own, turning the refined painting of academic artists into a unique idiom suffused with dream elements. He was well aware of the originality of his art and sought constantly to keep up the appearance of naivety acquired according to him “through stubborn hard work”. The striking feature of his work is indeed the uniformity and consistency of his style once he had perfected it.
The unusual nature of Henri Rousseau’s work, which bridges two centuries, has earned it a significant place in the history of art, thus prompting the question: was he a product of the 19th century or an exponent of 20th century art? The question remains open. In order to re-examine it, the exhibition reappraises his painting in the light of some of his sources of inspiration and explores connections with works by artists who were familiar with it. Avant-garde artists (writers, poets, and painters) were among the first to take an interest in his work, attracted perhaps by its “timeless” nature. By freeing himself from the constraints of perspective and adopting a realist pictorial idiom to transcribe a mental image onto canvas, Rousseau created works which formed the cornerstone of a new syntax for many artists. Picasso, Delaunay, Léger, and Italian and German avant-garde artists, starting with Kandinsky, not only admired Rousseau’s oeuvre, which informed their own work, but also collected it.