Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau
For years, The Sleeping Gypsy (above), a painting by French artist Henri Rousseau, was one of the most widely reproduced images in the world. (It may still be, I don’t know.) When I was in college I marveled at the number of apartment and dorm room walls it appeared on. My own apartment at the time had a copy of Rousseau’s Carnival Night (below, left) on a prominent wall and I spent a fair bit of time in front of the original in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A major exhibition of Rousseau’s jungle-themed paintings just closed a the Tate Gallery in London and his work is on prominent display in major museums around the world. Not bad for a self-taught “naive” artist who didn’t start painting seriously until he was 40.

Rousseau desparately wanted to paint like Bougereau or Gérôme, mainstream Academic Salon painters of his day. Fortunately for us, his own individualistic vision was stronger than that desire, and seemingly impervious to the influence of the impressionist style blooming around him, even though he associated with artists in that circle.

Henri RousseauLoosely classed as a “Post-Impressionist”, Rousseau stands unique, almost outside the flow of art history. Yes, you can find influences if you look hard enough (Gauguin, for one), but his style doesn’t really “fit” anywhere. The Surrealists adopted him as a precursor to Surrealism, admiring the dream-like quality of his images and the vertiginous lack of formal perspective (which he never mastered, perhaps a moot point since it was being intentionally abandoned by modernist painters at the time). He got the attention of many of the avant-garde artists and writers of the day, including Degas, Renoir, Gauguin and Aplloinaire. Many of them joined in a banquet organized by Picasso in Rousseau’s honor two years before his death.

Critics ridiculed Rousseau as not a serious artist (as critics will, being such a broad-minded, egalitarian and generous group as a whole), and called him Le Douanier, “the customs inspector”, after his day-job of many years. (Of course these same people would probably have called Einstein “the patent clerk”.) Rousseau was from a family of modest means and couldn’t afford to go to art school. Admittedly, he was eccentric; he considered himself one of the greatest artists of the age, seemed unable to distinguish sarcastic remarks from sincere compliments and sometimes bragged of accomplishments that were untrue.

His paintings, though, speak undeniably of their own power. His fantastic images of intense jungles and wild beasts (based on books and visits to the botanical gardens, he never left France) resonate with us on some instinctual level. He not only developed his own artistic style, but his own unconventional methods of painting, applying the colors one at a time, painting in layers of content (sky first, then other background elements, finishing with foreground subjects) and working the canvas methodically from the top down.

Here is a good bio on the Artelino Art Auction site. Here is a nice site devoted to Rousseau and his work, but the color of the reproductions is off. There are Rousseau links on the Artcyclopedia site

The sites I link to below are image collections on the WebMuseum and the ARTchive (pop-up and ad warning for the latter).


12 Replies to “Henri Rousseau”

  1. Rousseau is one of those artists whose works I appreciate, but wouldn’t make it on my fantasy list of 100 pieces of art to hang in my living room. Going through these archives made for an interesting read. On the one hand there are the iconic jungle and dream-inspired paintings — real masterpieces. On the other, there are a lot of paintings that frankly seem like uninspired folk art — Grandma Moses without the charm. Given the tremendous power of the jungle canvases, it’s hard to see that it’s the same painter. I guess he’s a great example of an artist finding a way to come into their own and blossom.

  2. Yeah, some of his work is pretty crude. He was probably the original “primitive” painter to be accepted by at least part of the art establishment, paving the way for people like Grandma Moses (whose appeal eludes me). The fact that his work did achieve the power of his jungle canvases seems all the more remarkable, but then we usually never see the crude early work of trained artists because it usually doesn’t survive.

  3. As per Charley’s last comment, there is a book that came out in 2003 – Famous works of art in popular culture : a reference guide by Lynda Sperling that looks at 29 works of art that have “become part of popular culture.” It is an interesting book – I looke at it on our new book shelf. I can’t remember if she actually ranked what images had been the most reproduced but I could find out if you would like.

  4. Thanks, Allen. I’m more interested in it in the general sense of wondering what images are pouplar with us as a culture, an how that varies geographically and over time.

  5. Trying to identify one of Rousseau’s painting. I’ve spent countless hours combing books and the internet to no avail!

    Does anyone know the name of a painting of a Tunisian shepherd, wearing white cloaks and floating above the ground as if traveling in a dream?

    Many thanks if you do.

  6. I have a old print of The Carnival Night 171/2″x24″ in the original frame. Is it worth anything?If you don’t know ,how could I find out what it is worth? Thank You Pamela

  7. I doubt it’s worth more than someone would pay for a similar framed poster if new, but I don’t really know. Try doing a search on the web for someone who sells collectable posters and commercial prints.

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