“Long live Rousseau!” These words appeared on a banner decorating a party held in Paris in November 1908. The guest of honor was Henri Rousseau, a self-taught painter who had captured the imagination of a younger generation of artists and writers in the French capital. One of these artists was Pablo Picasso, who hosted the party in his studio with the help of his partner, the artist and model Fernande Olivier. Gathered around a makeshift table were dozens of guests, among them the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, the painters Georges Braque and Marie Laurencin, and the writer Gertrude Stein. Following hours of food, drink, speeches, songs, and toasts, the 64-year-old Rousseau turned to thank his much younger host. “We are the two greatest painters of the era,” Rousseau purportedly said to Picasso, “you in the ‘Egyptian’ genre, I in the modern genre.”
By “Egyptian,” Rousseau appears to have been referencing the flattened planes and jutting forms of Picasso’s most recent paintings, inspired in part by African and Iberian masks. And by “modern,” he may have been alluding to the up-to-the-minute objects found in many of his own paintings of French cities and towns: paved roads, iron bridges, factory chimneys, even aircraft such as balloons and planes. Rousseau had begun to paint seriously in middle age, after working for decades in a customs office in the outskirts of Paris. (This was the origin of his nickname, “le Douanier,” or “the Customs Officer.”) From the start, the artist understood his aim to be the truthful representation of modern life. “He continued to improve his mastery,” wrote Rousseau in 1895, referring to himself in the third person, “and is now on the way to becoming one of our best realist painters.”
Yet Rousseau’s self-described “realism” was unlike that of his French predecessors. Rather than searing portrayals of rural and urban poverty, the artist’s paintings depicted tidy suburbs and prim families with vivid colors, simple shapes, uniform lighting, and crisp brushwork that both his supporters and detractors described as childlike. “Mention must be made of Monsieur Henri Rousseau, whose determined naiveté manages to become a style,” wrote the critic Thadée Natanson in 1897, with hints of admiration and mockery. This “style,” he continued, was characterized by “ingenuous and stubborn simplicity.”
Moreover, Rousseau had embraced a new subject in the 1890s that few would consider “realist”: tropical jungles brimming with riotous combinations of flora and fauna, from palm trees and lotus flowers to flamingoes and jaguars. The artist undertook his first jungle painting in 1891, then proceeded to complete around 20 in the next two decades. The last and the largest of these jungle paintings was The Dream (1910), a nighttime scene teeming with life. Half-submerged in the lush foliage are watchful lions, preening birds, and dangling monkeys, along with other creatures. Positioned among these creatures are two figures: at right, a musician who plays the flute, and at left, a nude reclining on a couch. How to explain the incongruous appearance of household furniture in a rainforest? A curious critic posed this question to the artist in 1910, when the painting was exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants, a jury-free exhibition in Paris where Rousseau had shown his work since the mid-1880s. “This woman asleep on the couch is dreaming she has been transported into the forest,” the artist replied, “listening to the sounds from the instrument of the enchanter.”
Rousseau, though he often claimed otherwise, never set foot in a tropical jungle. To paint The Dream, he relied on images from magazines, novels, and postcards, as well as his own sketches of the Jardin des Plantes—a botanical garden and zoo in Paris—and of two World Fairs held in the city, one in 1889 and another in 1900. “As a painter of the ‘exotic,’” the scholar Christopher Green has observed, “Rousseau offered, in the end, Parisian jungles.” Though homegrown, these “Parisian jungles” were shaped by French colonialism. Rousseau’s sources—from illustrated magazines to the World Fairs—sought to present France as a major colonial power. And paintings like The Dream project fears and fantasies onto distant landscapes and faraway peoples. In this way, too, the artist was decidedly modern.
The Sleeping Gypsy, painted by Rousseau in 1897, may be as enigmatic as The Dream. Lying flush with the picture plane is a soundly sleeping figure in a striped dress; a lion prowls nearby. Referred to by the artist as a “bohémienne” (“Gypsy”), the sleeping figure and her desert surroundings reflect Rousseau’s interest in northern Africa. (In 19th-century France, many believed that the Romani people had originated in Egypt.) But The Sleeping Gypsy is far from an ethnographic study. Instead, it is as though the artist rendered another dream. Using his supposedly child-like tools—clean lines, bright colors, lucid forms—Rousseau composed a mysterious picture, one poised between beauty and terror.
Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, 2021