Today is the birthday of one of the oddest artists to have influenced the course of art history: Henri Rousseau.
Rousseau’s nickname Le Douanier points to the oddity of his reputation: it means “the customs agent,” and points to his job as a toll collector for the Paris customs service.
Rousseau seems to have always been a dreamer who wanted his modest Parisian life to be more exciting than it really was. He played violin–enthusiastically, if not well–composed songs, and wrote plays. He also painted–entirely from his own imagination and without any instruction whatsoever. The results are predictably uneven. He never learned techniques such as modeling or perspective. His portraits are wince-inducing.
And yet his works have a unique intensity.
They are striking, evocative. Look at those silhouetted trees and the way the white of the moon echoes the white of the comedia dell’arte figures below.
Rousseau would have likely died in the same obscurity in which he worked had not Pablo Picasso discovered one of his canvases around the turn of the century. The story–which may be apocryphal–goes that Picasso saw one of Rousseau’s paintings lying in a heap in a junk shop. The owner offered to sell it cheap and told Picasso, “You can paint over it!” Instead, Picasso sought out Le Douanier and befriended him.
He introduced Rousseau to his own circle of avant-garde artists and poets, and they adopted the much older man as their mascot. In November 1908, Picasso hosted a famous dinner party in honor of Rousseau with a guest list that included Georges Braque, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Leo Stein. Apollinaire read a poem, Braque played the accordion, and the Stein’s friend Harriet Lane Levy, then on a visit from San Francisco, shouted the UC Berkeley Oski Wow Wow spirit yell.
Picasso and his circle promoted and encouraged Rousseau, and there’s no question that their support is why you find Rousseau’s work in the most significant museums today. But the situation has always made me uncomfortable. Here’s how Levy described it:
Everybody loved Rousseau. Everyone smiled when they spoke of his paintings, as if they were patting him on the shoulder. Not as if he were a real artist, more like a little brother who painted things in a way that made everybody tender towards him.
There’s always a note of patronage in the descriptions of Picasso’s interactions with Rousseau. To some degree, this is natural–Picasso had been hailed as a genius since he was a child, had studied at top art academies and was on his way to become the first mega-star artist. But still–why patronize an aging, paunchy, uneducated Frenchman who liked to paint jungles? There’s something malicious about all these young, beautiful, talented people plucking this man out of obscurity and “honoring” him at their parties. Apollinaire and Picasso liked to praise Rousseau’s innocence and naivete, but weren’t they taking advantage of that same innocence? “Everyone smiled when they spoke of his paintings,” Levy says. Doesn’t that make you cringe?
And yet, and yet. Maybe Rousseau wasn’t as innocent as he liked people to think. When I studied Rousseau to write his chapter in Secret Lives of Great Artist, I learned that on at least two occasions he had been involved in criminal fraud. The first time was when he was a young man working at a law office; he stole some cash and a large quantity of stamps from his employer. He was sent to prison, then volunteered for the military to shorten his sentence. Incidentally, he liked to tell long stories about his military exploits in exotic locations; in fact, he spent four undistinguished years at decidely unexotic regional posts.
The second case took place many years later in 1907 when Rousseau was already making a name for himself as an artist. He got involved in an elaborate case of bank fraud, partnering with a bank clerk friend to open accounts under false names and passing forged bank certificates. The crime was almost immediately discovered, and Rousseau was charged and tried. At the trial, his lawyer pleaded that the naive Rousseau had been taken advantage of because of his simple, innocent nature. The jury didn’t buy it and imposed a fine and a suspended sentence.
Maybe he was innocent and had been taken advantage of. Maybe Picasso was taking advantage of him as well–perhaps not maliciously, perhaps with a combination of appreciation and the subtle cruelty of youth, talent and ego. Or maybe Rousseau knew very well what he was doing. Maybe he knew what Picasso was doing as well, and played along because, why not? It got him recognition, offers to exhibit at the best shows and invitations to fantastic parties.
I like to think it’s the latter.
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