Henri Rousseau was a customs official who worked at a toll gate and only took up painting in his 40s. He painted innocent-looking pictures that are at once fastidious and gauche (irrational perspective, clunky anatomy) and that resemble either the art of children or — not quite the same thing — children’s book illustrations.
In “The Merry Jesters,” one of many jungle pictures he painted, we see a group of bearded monkeys amid a characteristically sumptuous scrim of palm fronds, foliage and long grass. The scene is windless and frozen, the foliage so exact it almost seems woven. The monkeys stare out as if caught by surprise, as does a bird with turquoise, crimson and gray plumage. A beautiful white flower — identified as a campanula, or “small bell” (not known to grow in tropical climes) — is suspended on the left side of the picture. Its shape echoes that of the bird and the lone monkey clinging to a tree trunk in the middle ground.
Despite his more advanced age, Rousseau (1844-1910) was friends with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and other avant-garde artists who populated Paris in the first decade of the 20th century. His nickname, “Le Douanier,” refers to his old job as a customs official. But by the time it was coined, he had long since retired, so it was also a light tease — a bit of bohemian irony.
In 1908, these artists and their poet friends, who were busy overturning every preexisting assumption about art, threw a famous banquet in Rousseau’s honor. Attendees included Picasso, poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, and American siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein.
A well-known photo of Rousseau shows him seated in front of “The Merry Jesters.” He looks like a proud man with thinning gray hair, a lavish mustache, a brush in one hand and his painter’s palette on his lap. You could project “childlike innocence” onto him if you wanted. But you’d have the wrong man.
On the occasion of a Rousseau retrospective at London’s Tate Modern in 2005, artist Dexter Dalwood made the point that Rousseau “wasn’t just this gentle, simple old chap … who spent his Sundays painting. … He was quite wily and difficult; he drank a lot and got into problems with money. He received a two-year suspended sentence for bank fraud. There was a lot more of the ‘street’ in him than some would like to believe.”
When you see paintings by Rousseau in museums (this one is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), they tend to be alongside avant-garde works from the same period, like Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s gray-and-brown, difficult-to-parse Cubist paintings. In such contexts, Rousseau’s limpid, richly colored pictures of innocent subjects — jungles, big cats, the moon — can come as a relief.
And so they are. But look closer, and there are often mysterious anomalies. Here, in the foreground — quite inexplicably — is an upside-down milk bottle spilling its contents into the grass, and a long-handled backscratcher. One monkey touches the backscratcher with its paw. There may be an obvious meaning; I can’t figure it out. But both items are surely a sign of Rousseau’s humor. And they remind us of the essential artifice at the heart of his vision.
The fact is, Rousseau had never left France — let alone explored a tropical jungle. All he had to go on were the zoo and the botanical gardens, various images he had seen in books and museums, and his own imagination. And perhaps that, in the end, is the reason we love Rousseau: The animals he saw in the zoo were behind bars, but his imagination roamed where it wanted.