Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)
NOTE: For analysis of works by naif painters like Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).
Arguably the greatest exponent of naive (naif) or primitive art, the self-taught French painter Henri Rousseau ("Le Douanier") was derided by art critics but much admired by other modern artists, including the colourist Henri Matisse, the Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Cubist Robert Delaunay, as well as Pablo Picasso who championed the strong colour and child-like simplicity of his primitive landscape painting. Picasso hosted a dinner in the painter's honour in 1908, which duly triggered a wave of intellectual interest in the Rousseau's works, and elevated his primitivism to the level of high art. Associated with the Ecole de Paris, Rousseau was later revered by Surrealists in the 1920s for the surrealism of images such as The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), which is now one of the world's most popular posters of modern art. Other well-known paintings by Rousseau include: Surprised! (1891, National Gallery, London); The Monkeys (1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art); The Snake Charmer (1907, Musee d'Orsay); and The Dream (1910, MOMA, New York).
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His earliest known works are local views (for instance, of the customs house), naive in their perception of reality and in their detailed descriptiveness. But such seemingly direct reportage was followed by inventive, imaginative, and dream-like works. However obsessed he was with exact and particular detail, he was able to control his composition, subordinating what might have been a host of minute and disparate observations into a rhythmical whole. He worked slowly and carefully, applying many layers of paint and exotic jewel-like colour, and had a relatively small output.
One of Rousseau's best known pictures which has become one of the most famous images of modern times, The Sleeping Gypsy is stunning in the simplicity of it's composition and the subtlity of its execution. The beautiful multi-coloured figure of the gypsy sleeps peacefully, watched over by a lion, and the whole scene is bathed in the pale light of a full moon. The picture is intensely surreal and dreamlike, but also alarmingly direct, and real, and the image works on both levels of interpetation. Rousseau offered it for sale to his hometown of Laval at a price of 200 francs, but his offer was rejected as the painting was considered "too childish". It is now one of the best-loved examples of poster art.
Rousseau's famous jungle scenes and exotic Landscapes were not based (as he claimed) on his mythical Mexican experiences, but on the tropical flora and fauna that he found in books, or observed in the Jardin des Plantes botanical gardens in Paris. Equally, the exotic creatures inhabiting these forests - monkeys, water buffaloes, hunters, and dark-skinned natives - were reproduced from photographs, or from dolls and toys (for example, Merry Jesters, 1906; Philadelphia Museum of Art). One of his last works, The Dream (1910; Museum of Modern Art, New York) is a memory-image of his first love reclining on a sofa in one of his imaginary jungles. Its power and conviction, its sheer authenticity as dream-reality, foretells the best of Surrealist painting. Kandinsky called Rousseau the author of "new, greater reality", the complementary pole of the "new and greater abstraction". Rousseau remains the first and the greatest of the naive or primitive painters.
Works by Henri Rousseau hang in several of the world's best art museums, including the National Gallery London (Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891), and the Museum of Modern Art New York (The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897; The Dream, 1910), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (The Monkeys, 1906).
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