There is little in his favor. He has no important champions, his naivete' is high. He ought to be a failure, but he makes himself a master -- and a kind of art world saint.
He does so without money. He will never pay off all his bills for canvas, paints and brushes, and there is only one bed in the tiny room he and his son share. He is also short of time. Dressed in his blue uniform, a saber in his belt, he spends 70 hours weekly on duty, most days as a toll collector. But he becomes a painter Sundays. With unembarrassed pride he buys himself a flowing tie and the floppy black beret he thinks the badge of the true artist. He dreams exotic jungles filled with furry, otherworldly beasts and enormous, thick-leaved plants. At last, in 1885, two of his peculiar, rather gawky pictures are, wholly unexpectedly, accepted for inclusion in the official Salon des Champs-Elyse'es.
A triumph? Not exactly. Unsympathetic spectators slash both works with penknives. The pictures, half destroyed, are removed from the Salon.
But not Henri Rousseau. He paints on with high assurance, sometimes copying from photographs, often reproducing the wild animals he's discovered in popular magazines. His methods are his own. He likes to start his canvases by painting at the top, and then working toward the bottom, "like pulling down a window shade." From the start of his career in the early 1880s until his death in 1910, his style changes little. His odd art, from the start, is completely free of doubt.
Rejected by the arbiters of high, official taste -- and denied a chance to show with the conservatives he admires -- Bouguereau, Ge'rome -- he happily allies himself with the Inde'pendants, the young turks of the art world. Though many who encounter him snicker at his visions, and at his stately, grave demeanor -- and though the hostile critics snarl ("Monsieur Rousseau," writes one, "paints with his feet with his eyes closed") -- insults won't deter him. He wears his innocence like armor.
True saints, in the end, transcend their tribulations. So, too, did Rousseau. Despite some foolish fibs (he never went to Mexico, he never saw the jungle), and despite some silly pictures, posterity, at last, promoted him -- as he knew it would -- to the company of masters.
Some 60 of his paintings -- including such delights as "The Dream," "The Sleeping Gypsy," "The Football Players," "War," and "Myself, Portrait-Landscape," are now on exhibition in Manhattan at the Museum of Modern Art. Loving them is easy. The viewer who confronts these works can sometimes gasp with awe -- and sometimes laugh out loud.
Rousseau painted -- always with high seriousness -- some of the funniest animals in the history of art. Look, for instance, at the splay-legged cat that sits beneath the smokestacks in his "Portrait of Pierre Loti" (c. 1891), or at the blobby black dog in "The Wedding" (1904-05), or at the monkeys playing in the jungle in "Exotic Landscape" (1808), or at the awkward creature -- it seems half-dog, half-monkey -- seated in "Old Junier's Cart" (1908). Pictures of this sort evoke not only warm amusement, but waves of warm affection for the gentle loner who produced them. But the pictures of Rousseau are not all bathed in sweetness. He painted corpses, too, and bleeding beasts, and birds of prey. As soon as one encounters such inexplicable and eerie works as, say, "The Sleeping Gypsy" (1897), one's friendly, knowing smiles are quickly wiped away.
The gypsy wears a coat of many colors. Her hair, much like the distant hills, seems made not out of hair but of wind-eroded stone. A strange, pre-Cubist still life, a jug, a mandolin, is set beside her pillow. Her white teeth gleam like pearls in the utterly unconscious darkness of her face. A lion, yellow-eyed, sniffs her sleeping form -- but so deep is her protective sleep that there is no sense of menace. What seems to be a face looks down from the disc of the full moon. There are no laughs in this picture. It has the resonating presence of a crucially important, undeciphered omen apprehended in a dream.
That sense of dream made concrete, and of high amusement undercut by something strange and earnest, something not quite sane, is sensed often in this show. One laughs a little at Rousseau, but one doesn't laugh for long.
Rousseau's works, in retrospect, predicted much that was to come. The hallucinatory intensity of his visions seems absolutely modern. He never saw those eerie plants, those leaves as thick as arms, those monkeys in the jungle -- or, to be precise, he saw them only in his dreams. His refusal -- or what seems his refusal -- of bland obedience to the merely witnessed, points him down the road to a new, more abstract art. He painted at a time when the Impressionists, the Cubists, and such restless thinkers as Georges Seurat and Picasso were fighting to free art from conventions that had so long oppressed it. Rousseau, though no theorist, also won new freedom -- but a freedom based on heart rather than on mind.
The Surrealists would soon fill their startling objects with images that strike us as intentionally irrational. Something of the sort was apparent from the start in the never-quite-explicable paintings of Rousseau. Why are those mustachioed rugby players floating in the air? What is that naked black woman doing in the moonlight festooned with dark snakes? What prompted that wholly unexpected and quite unlikely battle between a red Indian in feathers and an enormous black gorilla? How has that red chaise lounge, and the naked woman on it, arrived among the elephants and lions of the jungle in "The Dream"?
Such visions tug the viewer out of the world of dailyness into one much stranger -- though gentle Henri Rousseau seemed to think the two the same.
"I am writing," he wrote the critic Andre' Dupont in 1910, not long before his death, "to explain to you the reason the couch in question is where it is. The woman asleep on the couch is dreaming she has been transported into the forest, listening to the sounds from the instrument of the enchanter" -- as if that explained anything at all.
In 1909, artist Marie Laurencin posed with her friend Guillaume Apollinaire for Rousseau's double portrait "The Muse Inspiring the Poet." She politely asked the painter why he had made her seem so large. He responded, without irony, "Guillaume is a great poet. He needs a fat muse."
Those who met the artist on the streets of Paris -- and those of us today who come upon his pictures -- cannot help but sense something otherworldy. Rousseau's designs are very strong. His carefully tuned colors, particularly his greens and blacks, have a freshness that still startles. The firmness of his modeling -- those smooth round trunks, those solid leaves -- is free of ambiguity. But it is not Rousseau's technique alone that fills his art with magic. Little children still shudder at his jungles. Even blase' grown-ups, confronted by his cats and dogs and horses, know that those amazing beasts belong to some peculiar world where no one else has been.
Rousseau's first one-man show was held not in Paris, but in New York, in 1910, at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery. Its few canvases and drawings had been collected by Max Weber, the young American painter, who wrote of his discovery of Rousseau and his art: "I shall never forget that first encounter as long as I live. I felt I had been favored by the gods . . ."
Many since have felt that same odd sense of revelation. The saint of art -- or, if not the saint, exactly -- the vrai naif, the innocent, the diamond in the rough, has been a hero in the world of art since Rousseau filled the role at Modernism's dawn.
A rich New York attorney spending thousands on some scrawl by a young graffiti bomber, or a William Carlos Williams stunned by a line of "poetry" overheard on some mean New Jersey street ("I'll kill yuh eye!"), a Picasso confronting tribal art in an ethnographical museum or a Piet Mondrian enthralled by boogie-woogie, or a young Paul Klee delighted by the drawings of a child, are all, to some degree, re-experiencing the thrill that the avant-garde artists of the 1890s felt upon encountering the pictures of Rousseau.
He struck them as a natural, a force, a strangely blessed creature who had somehow tapped the well-springs of true art.
Picasso bought a picture the first time he encountered Rousseau's painting, and kept it throughout his life -- the full-length "Portrait of a Woman" (now owned by the Louvre). It is included in the Modern's exhibition, which will remain on view through June 4.
That painting, Picasso later wrote, "took hold of me with the force of obsession. I was going along the Rue des Martyrs. A bric-a-brac dealer had piled up some canvases outside his shop. A portrait had protruded from the pile, the face of a woman wearing a stony look, with French penetration and decisiveness and clarity. The canvas was immense. I asked the price. 'Five francs,' the man said. 'You can paint on the back.' "
Picasso's chance acquisition led to the banquet Rousseau, one of the legendary parties in all the history of art.
It was held in 1908 in Picasso's studio. Rousseau, some 44 years older than his host, was the guest of honor. Everyone was there -- Georges Braque, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Maurice de Vlaminck, everyone. Vast amounts of food and drink were happily consumed. Fre'de', a neighbor, searching for a drink, wandered in with Lolo, his donkey. Marie Laurencin, tipsy, fell on top of a pile of pastries on the sofa. Two young poets, Cremnitz and Salmon (who had been chewing bits of soap and employed the resulting foam to convincingly portray madness) got into a fistfight and, according to Gertrude Stein, "had to be locked by force in the men's coatroom."
Rousseau, who arrived late, apparently was delighted by the festivities. In response to songs of praise recited by the guests, he took out his violin and played a sentimental song of his own composition. The room was bright with Chinese lanterns. Picasso's new Rousseau painting had been draped with banners, one of them inscribed, "Honor to Rousseau." The delighted painter was given the seat of honor -- a chair, writes Roger Shattuck, "set on a crate at the head of a makeshift table." Apollinaire recited an elaborate toast, in verse, and the assembled company yelled, in unison, "Vive! Vive Rousseau!"
Rousseau, the saint of art, for whom the roaring party was a sort of apotheosis, sat smiling, uncomplaining, while a lantern overhead dealt him a mild martyrdom. Throughout the festivities it dripped hot wax on his head.
Two years later, he inadvertently cut his leg. The wound became infected. He died in pain, alone.
The painter Robert Delaunay, and Que'val, Rousseau's landlord, bought the poor old man a graveyard plot and a small stone marker. Apollinaire wrote an epitaph, in chalk, upon the granite, and Brancusi, the Romanian sculptor, cut the words into the stone:
You hear us . . .
Let our baggage through free at heaven's gate
We shall bring you brushes and paints and canvas
So that you can devote your sacred leisure in the light of truth
To painting the way you did my portrait
The face of the stars