Text by Geoffrey Smith
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In 1908 Pablo Picasso hosted a banquet at his rooms in the Bateau Lavoir, a run-down apartment block in Montmartre. A host of ‘big names’ from the Parisian avant garde were there including Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire and Georges Braque. But the guest of honour at the banquet was an elderly man who had spent a good deal of his working life as an attendant at the toll gates which then surrounded Paris. The Bateau Lavoir group had mockingly christened him ‘Le Douanier’ as, during his working life, he had failed to attain even the relatively modest status of customs officer.
Henri Rousseau had started to paint in early middle age; completely self taught, he was unwittingly the first exponent of what was later labelled Naïve Art. Not that Rousseau would have accepted this appellation for a moment. He took himself very seriously and as far as he was concerned his output was firmly in the academic tradition of such officially respectable painters as Gérôme and Bouguereau whose work was feted at the Salon. He had a great sense of his own importance and once told Picasso ‘we are the two great painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style and I in the modern style’. It was for this reason that the atmosphere at the banquet was laced with gentle mockery most of which would undoubtedly have gone right over Rousseau’s head. However, Picasso had genuine regard for his work and owned several of his pictures.
In this painting, a tiger, normally an object of awe and fear, is shown as itself fearful of the violence of a tropical storm; its awkward stance has also conspired to rob it of the grace inherent in real tigers. The forest vegetation is depicted with considerable gusto. No matter that some of the undergrowth can be identified as scaled up house plants, the effect is sensational as the trees strain under the weight of the wind. And it is difficult to think of many other pictures in which rain has been better portrayed. Rousseau’s solution to this problem was to streak the canvas with slightly opaque glazes of paint or varnish.
Rousseau claimed that his twenty jungle scenes (of which this was the first) were the product of direct observation. He had been a bandsman in the army and he claimed to have served in Mexico, but this tour of duty seems only to have taken place in his own imagination as it appears that he spent his time in the army in the delightful but rather less exotic climes of Angers in the Loire valley. It is much more likely that the plants in this painting have their origin in his visits to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Rousseau’s influence on various twentieth century movements was considerable but it was the Surrealists who really took him to their hearts. They loved the dreamlike quality which he achieved in much of his work — presumably his somewhat eccentric grasp of scale and perspective only served to heighten his appeal. His legacy can be seen clearly in the output of Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux.
Eventually Picasso gave his collection of Rousseau’s works to the Louvre. How Rousseau would have liked to know that he is now admired far more than the academicians whom he had esteemed so highly.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1891 Fernand Khnopff: I Lock My Door upon Myself, Munich,Neue Pinakothek
1891 Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Love’s Votaries, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Laing Art Gallery
1892 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril Dancing, Paris, Musée d’Orsay