Feature Archive

Self-Taught in Paris

Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris
At the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., through October 15, 2006
By K. Kimberly King
  Carnival Evening For lunar lovers and would-be jungle-adventurers alike, the savannah to savor this summer is Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, at the National Gallery of Art. Like the self-taught painter who did not sojourn beyond Parisian zoos and gardens to concoct his unique fauna and flora, gallery-goers needn't leave the Washington landmark for un petit refuge from the capital's notorious steaminess.

Hunting down the four full moons among his 49 paintings transports viewers from the shimmering luminescence of his early Carnival Evening to The Dream of his final year. Trekkers wind through quiet Paris outskirts, an electrifying outrage at war, portraits stern and strange, and ten final jungle scenes.

Perhaps the single-most striking aspect of Henri Rousseau's sometimes strange, even implausible oeuvre is that this life-long pauper who had to wait forty years to begin painting and endured wide ridicule - "M. Rousseau paints with his feet with his eyes closed" - remained unswervingly self-confident, never doubting he'd land a canvas in the Louvre (The Snake Charmer entered in 1937, followed ten years later by War). How the unschooled son of a provincial ironmonger developed unshakable belief in his ultimate imprint on art - reinforced by his bold signature at the exhibit entrance - remains a mystery.

Born in 1844 in the Loire Valley town of Laval, Henri Rousseau, who also taught himself music, spent his first four decades as soldier, street musician, and minor civil servant. Inspiring late-bloomers everywhere, he began painting only after 40 and then within the confines of his 70-hour workweek as gabelou, a lowly municipal toll-taker. [Le Douanier, his more suave-sounding nickname, denoted a much higher rank: "customs inspector." Its bestowal formed part of his admirers' romanticization of his past; he neither scaled ramparts to stave off Prussians in 1870, nor did he sail to Veracruz as a regimental musician.] His 1868 departure from Laval - which a decade ago instituted the Biennale Primitif in his honor - to find work in Paris proved his only travel. Twenty-five years later, with retirement at age 49, he was finally able to paint full-time.

Curator Frances Morris of London's Tate Modern, where the exhibit originated, terms Rousseau and his art "singular and enigmatic." Rousseau and his "vision of the jungle remain firmly embedded in collective memory...." Rousseau himself emphasized: "I was told that I did not belong to this century." Essayist Guy Davenport observed that his works "refuse to age. Until we are willing to enter Rousseau's world, we are going to misread all his paintings."

Equatorial Jungle Entry into that world clearly gave NGA exhibit designers summer fun: a low archway - beveled for intimacy and painted with lions, a flautist overhead, and knee-high vegetation - delivers the art explorer to Rousseau's first jungle painting, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!).

Teeth bared in pursuit of unseen prey under lightning and driving rain, Tiger proved a showstopper. Completed in 1891, while Rousseau was still logging 70 hours a week at the toll-house, this unusually finished, stylistic canvas prompted one critic's verdict: "a must-see; it's the alpha and omega of painting." The convincing slicks of rain Rousseau achieved with a thin whitish glaze can be imitated online in the NGA's "Art Zone".

Turning a corner, the viewer falls under the spell of the luminescent Carnival Evening (1886, pictured above), whose silky comic theater characters Pierrot and Columbine stroll under midnight blue skies with a high winter moon.

Next come 13 landscapes: smaller-scale, tranquil views meant for popular taste and pocketbooks. These scenes around greater Paris include The Customs Post, in which two men, sabers at the ready, guard a tariff checkpoint like Rousseau's own.

Four years later came his (unsuccessful) effort to garner official approval via the apocalyptic War. The 7'-width's innovative, heavy use of black sets off severed limbs, blood-gorged crow's beaks, and an electrified horse's mane. This disturbing scene (a voice behind murmured: "could be Baghdad") did stir significant press attention: War "only seems strange because nothing like it has been seen."

The arresting canvas also underlines "the persistently odd quality of his paintings," as curator Morris notes. His difficulties depicting figures and exploring perspective "suggest a kind of naïveté in relation to familiar rules and techniques...." she points out. "But Rousseau acknowledged his naïveté - he went with it, instead of struggling against it."

That rawness stopped Picasso in his tracks when he spotted Portrait of a Woman (1895) in a Montmartre shop. The young Spaniard immediately bought the canvas, never to part with it, because it "grew inside me with an obsessive power...."

Rousseau also exerted a special presence for Alfred Barr, first MOMA director, when the American crafted a 1936 schemata of artistic movements. Rousseau landed in a corner, unattached to any school, one of few named artists.

Snake Charmer Indulging Le Douanier his mixture of, in the words of NGA curator Leah Dickerman, "the spectacularly impossible with the authentic" - monkeys fishing, a gorilla attacking a Native American - we are at last surrounded by Rousseau's jungle: "a majestic, formal green machine that fills its animal signs with utter conviction," according to art critic Robert Hughes.

Equatorial Jungle (1909, pictured above) casts subtle, silvery mist over a dozen types of vegetation. Three pairs of eyes peer out as a full moon spirals away. Leaf, by frond, by stalk, the viewer could imagine climbing into that scene, pushing through lushness onto calm, golden waters of the opposite canvas, the riveting Snake Charmer (1907, pictured at right). Here, breath-taking moonlight illumines "self-lit" trees, as critic Davenport observed, and the mysterious ebony figure which propelled the work into cult status after Rousseau's death.

His final full moon shines upon an odalisque in the wilds of The Dream, painted months before his 1910 death at age 66. Biographer Shattuck points to "the very steadfastness of his light, denying the movement of the sun and the succession of day and night, [which] removes his paintings from time."

Painter Robert Delaunay, who helped oversee the transfer of Rousseau's remains from pauper's field to gravesite, declared that Le Douanier "didn't establish his style by comparison or out of obedience to style. It came from his spirit."

The Web-empowered everywhere can hopscotch through NGA's excellent online education components, while the playful-minded can tap Rousseau's lifelong youthful spirit by creating their own interactive jungle illustrations via "Art Zone".

Aux Jungles!
"Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris" organized by London's Tate Modern and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and Musée d'Orsay, Paris, in association with the National Gallery of Art, runs through Oct. 15 during the final - and only U.S. - stop of its three-city run.

The 320-page exhibition catalogue, edited by the Tate Modern's Frances Morris and the Courtauld Institute of Art's Christopher Green, provides a full range of scholarly essays on Rousseau's oeuvre, along with insights into the sources of his artistic inspiration. Included with large, color reproductions are many previously unpublished illustrations of his sources and influences, as well as new research on his life and work. $35 (soft cover)/$50 (cloth).

NGA has programmed its usual high-calibre thematic mix of concerts, lectures, family days, educational components, a 30-minute documentary, and two audio tours - one designed for children aged 7 to 12. Four free family days for ages 4 and up offered sketching, films, and, to kids' absolute rapture, "face-painting" in jungle motifs.

A web feature includes an amply illustrated flash presentation. Educators will find curricula, video loans, a teaching component on art and ecology, and a vast number of teaching segments on art in general at the NGA Classroom.

During the exhibit's run, the Terrace Café, one level up, will tempt palates with pâté de foie gras, moules meunière, wines, coffee specialties, and tarte tatin, crème brûlée, and peach frangipane on weekends from noon to 3 p.m.


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