The studio was packed with friends and admirers who’d come to celebrate an unappreciated old man, someone who’d long since given up on success and acclaim. Well-wishers raising their glasses to toast Henri Rousseau all shared a secret; the guest of honor was a shameful liar.
Rousseau was a generation older than these new kids on the block, artists like Pablo Picasso. Picasso had lent his studio and arranged the banquet for Rousseau. The Spaniard was one of the few who knew the artist’s real name. Most of those patting the old man on the back referred to him simply as Le Douanier (the customs officer). Even this was a lie, spread by Rousseau himself. He never held the position of customs officer, he’d merely been an underpaid toll collector at one of the gates of Paris.
The banquet thrown for Rousseau took place in 1908 when the artist was sixty-four. He looked older than his years and would be dead in two years. This would be the only time in his life when he would be celebrated by his peers, and his weary eyes must have misted over at the sight of so many young artists gathered to pay him homage, this at a time when he couldn’t sell his work and had been supplementing his income by playing his violin in the streets. Most critics laughed and dismissed his work as naïve or childish, but Le Douanier found a home in the hearts of these talented young bohemians.
Picasso told the story often, how he’d seen one of Rousseau’s paintings protruding from the back of a pushcart stacked with trash. On the canvas a sturdy woman had been portrayed in a brash guileless manner unlike anything Picasso had seen. The peasant pushing the cart offered the canvas for a few coins, telling the future Father of Modern Art that it could be painted over. Picasso had no intention of re-using the canvas, which he considered a masterpiece. He purchased it on the spot, and later dashed off to seek out the artist.
Picasso was fascinated by Rousseau, who claimed to be self-taught with “no teacher other than nature.” Picasso admired the old man’s paintings, enjoyed the fanciful stories and spread the word. Before long, Le Douanier was the darling of young artists on the prowl for something fresh and new. Interesting that this was to be found in the paintings of an unacknowledged old toll collector.
The direction of art was changing. Academies and salons were no longer the vanguards of artistic exceptionalism. Years of training to master perspective, color theory and paint application were suddenly considered a waste of time. Truth would be the goal of modern art. And truth, contrary to what philosophers thought, couldn’t be taught but was to be found in individual human expression. Picasso and his friends recognized more than truth in Rousseau’s work; they saw purity, and innocence untainted by art history. Psychology was about to be born, and would soon replace philosophy.
Rousseau’s best known paintings depicted jungle scenes, and Rousseau claimed they were inspired by his military service, which was said to have included the French Expeditionary Force to Mexico. This was a lie; Rousseau never set foot in exotic lands, never journeyed outside of France. The animals he painted were inspired by trips to the zoo, illustrated books and visits to taxidermy shops. Many of the exotic plants in his work were taken from old engravings or observed at Paris’ botanical gardens.
In 1907 Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer. At first glance it’s easy to see why art critics ridiculed it; the colors and modeling are flat and unsophisticated, the lighting is peculiar, and the snakes are unrealistic tree branches. Even the plants refuse to conform to nature, his ferns stand in straight lines as if in a police line up. Rousseau later admitted that when he visited botanical gardens and saw exotic plants he felt like he was entering a dream, no doubt a place more real to him than his shabby life.
Serious artists no longer concern themselves with mimicking nature—cameras perform this chore—so when I stood before the surprisingly large Snake Charmer a few years ago I wasn’t prepared to be assaulted by the intensity of Rousseau’s reality. This wasn’t the reality of a sugary Parisian street scene, the type made famous by the Impressionists; here was something both new and ancient. Rousseau’s painting pulses with psychological energy while speaking timeless truths. It blazes a path forward toward Surrealism and the subconscious while harkening back to a place primordial, where cave painters captured the souls of animals to make them easier to hunt.
Now when I see this painting I envision Rousseau charming a young generation of artists, those who would later see in his work the impetus to bid farewell to preconceptions of reality in favor of a world of imagination, a universe of wondrous possibilities.
Rousseau was a liar; but has anyone else ever lied so exquisitely?
Also by Rousseau:
"The Dream." Rousseau's last painting.