ROUSSEAU Henri, known as Le Douanier
( 1844-1910). French painter; born at Laval in Mayenne; died in Paris. At eighteen he enrolled in the Army and was assigned to the 52nd Infantry Regimental Band, where he played the saxophone. After he left the Army he married, in 1869. In 1871, after having taken part in the Franco-Prussian war, he entered the customs service as a clerk: hence his name. He allowed people to think that he had participated in the Mexican campaign, but there is no evidence to support this idea. When he was about forty he retired and begin painting steadily. In 1886, introduced by Signac and Luce, he exhibited at the Société des Artistes Indépendants, to which he sent work regularly from then until 1898, and again from 1901 to 1910. Beginning in 1905, he exhibited also at the Salon d'Automne. He associated with Gauguin, Odilon Redon and Seurat.
Through the poet Alfred Jarry, also of the town of Laval, he made the acquaintance of Rémy de Gourmont, who, in the magazine L'Imagier, published War, a lithograph based upon Rousseau's picture, exhibited the previous year. Having lost his wife, Rousseau remarried in September 1899 upon the completion of a drama in five acts, The Revenge of a Russian Orphan, which was unsuccessfully produced at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. In 1903 his second wife died. He lived in the rue Pernel, in the Plaisance quarter of Paris, and, to make a living, he gave lessons in painting, diction and harmony. He made portraits of neighbouring shopkeepers, and when he drew them he took their measurements, like a tailor. In 1907 he met Wilhelm Uhde, who wrote the first monograph on him ( Paris, 1911). The following year his friends organized a banquet in his honour at Picasso's studio in the Bateau-Lavoir. In 1909 he painted his two portraits of Apollinaire. Wilhelm Uhde, Ambroise Vollard and Brummer were his first buyers. Baroness Ottingen ( Roch Grey), Ardengo Soffici, the sculptor Hoetver and Robert Delaunay bought pictures from him. He exhibited The Dream at the Salon des Indépendants. But he was driven by the desire to marry again. Turned down by the woman he wanted to marry at any cost and whom he had pressed with increasingly urgent proposals, his spirit broke. He was admitted to the Necket hospital, where he died on September 2nd, 1910. Seven people, among them Paul Signac, followed the hearse. He was buried in a common grave at the Bagneux cemetery outside Paris. The painter Delaunay and the caster Queval, owner of the house in which Rouseau lived, put up the money to buy a thirty-year concession at the cemetery, and the Douanier's remains were transferred to a decent burying-ground. Here, with a medallion by Armand Queval, was set a tombstone on which Apollinaire wrote in pencil the famous poem-epitaph that Brancusi and Orthiz de Zarate engraved in the stone the next year, following the poet's handwriting precisely.
Rousseau's attention was drawn only by the freshness of things. For him dream was never severed from reality. The most everyday events were bathed in enchantment. In Plaisance concierges saw him pass by in his big art student's hat, violin-case or paint-box under his arm. In his tiny studio he lived on the hundred francs of his monthly pension, which he stretched out as he could. There he occasionally gave his soirées. The studio contained a table in unstained wood, three chairs, a chest for wood, and a makeshift bed concealed behind a curtain. He interrupted his painting from time to time to eat bread soaked in wine or milk. He led the life of a forgotten man, a rather miserable one. He said he had 'suffered much in the heart'. But he was rich, alive with a world of colours and forms, a world impatient to be born, and which found its most appropriate idiom in painting. This idiom, springing from the very surge of life, from the beat of the heart, has its miraculous expression in his painting. He never had to make in effort to convey a sudden emotion. There is nothing reheated in his work. He gave himself totally, without a struggle. 'It is not I who paint,' he said to a friend, 'but someone else who holds my hand.' How did this essentially plebeian art achieve such distinction? Most of what we know of folk art has a direct but often monotonous savour. There is nothing of the kind here. Rousseau had found instinctively the quality of the style that strikes us in those whom we call Primitives. From all the Douanier painted emerges a unique form, a unique harmony of colours, a unique way of treating the detail of the foliage of trees and of subordinating even the tiniest fragments to the monumentality of the whole. A primitive intuition led him to paint weddings, family reunions, the old dreams of the Dream Book. He had the childlike gift of believing in the magic reality of his creations. Those who knew him assure us that he experienced sudden terrors while painting his tiger hunts. Rousseau's production extends over a period of twenty-five years. But works of his exist done before 1886, the year of his first appearance at the Salon des Indépendants. We know that in 1884 he was issued a copyist's card for the Louvre. What old masters could he have interpreted? We do not know. Of his work we know only a part. Besides the 140 or so paintings exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne and the works recognized today, many canvases were destroyed through ignorance or ruined through neglect (they were in the possession of concierges or at the houses of workmen, who often took no care of them). Without expecting numerous discoveries, it may be hoped that other Rousseaus will still be found. The themes he treated can be grouped into six categories: 1. (1) Scenes referring to the life of the Douanier or of his relatives, of people whom he knew: self-portraits, ceremonies, weddings, baptisms, family reunions (self-portraits, 1989- 1990; To Welcome The Baby, 1903; A Weeding in the Country, 1905; The Cart of Père Juniet, 1908).
2. (2) Landscapes of Paris and its suburbs, with strollers and fishermen, which often give off something euphoric ( View of the Foot Bridge of Passy, 1895; In the Parc Montsouris, 1895; Cabs on the Quai d'Austerlitz, 1896; The Chair Factory in Alfortville, 1897; The Alley in Saint-Cloud, 1903; Malakoff, 1905; View of the Quai Henri IV, 1909).
3. (3) Exotic scenes: evocations of the virgin forest, big game hunts, bloody fights ( The Negro Assailed by a Leopard, 1904; The Lion Devouring The Antelope, 1905; Practical Jokers, The Apes, 1906; The Monkeys in The Orange Grove, 1907; The Snake Charmer, 1907; Exotic Landscape, 1908)
(4) Military, patriotic or sports scenes ( The Gunners; War; The Republic, 1885; The Centenary of Independence, 1892; The Football Players, 1908).
(5) Allegorical scenes ( Present and Part, 1907; The Muse and the Poet, 1909; The Dream, 1910)
(6) Bouquets of wild and garden flowers.
How did Rousseau work? 'As an embroideress embroiders', say those who knew him. If the man sometimes had the excessive simplicity of naïve persons, the artist was rather ingenuous. He painted with a natural and graceful frankness, adding freedom to his native gifts. Thus his technique had nothing summary to it. He could render details without impairing the unity of the whole in his small canvases. Works of greater dimensions he treated differently, with large planes of even colours. Whence came the monumentality that his landscapes almost always possess? From his way of presenting the plant world. Like Poussin, the Douanier enlarged greenery and branches, whose leaves he shows us as if through a magnifying-glass, taking care to distinguish every species. His palette of deep blacks, the colour of slate, is cut by yellows, browns, purplish greens; it has the delicate, almost acid, tones of the Christmas rose. Rousseau drew little, but with an extraordinary sense of plastic values. Usually he described contours directly with the brush, and in colour, but without harshness. Before painting with the very precise density that characterizes him, he sometimes made sketches that approach, though rather distantly, the Impressionist manner. This naïve and gentle man, something of a mythomaniac, ridiculed, scolded by his wife, bullied by his daughter, knew nevertheless that only the fittest survive, that Nature is a jungle full of ferocity, that the child is not always good. But, with his whole being, he sided with the underdog, the fenceless animal, the victim. In his painting the quality of universal commiseration almost always impregnates the fruits of observation. Beyond reality, this ingenuous man opened paths invisible to the naked eye and had a presentiment of encounters that escape logic.
There exist innocent beings to whom it is given to see farther than others who are of more complex organization but conform to the common measure. Nothing discourages these ingenuous ones. In them hope springs eternal. Some day, they know, it will be 'different'. The little painter, the 'angel' of the Plaisance quarter, belongs to their family. Rousseau put up with poverty, but without too much resignation. He acknowledged it. He courageously claimed his place, his right to woman and to art, to freedom and Sunday calm. No doubt at the bottom of his heart he vaguely felt joy in having freed himself from the slavery of assigned work. With the resources granted him, the degree of intelligence fallen to his lot, this child, who had been given more love than knowledge, was conscious of his humble victory as a man who remained true to his first dreams. Hence the kindness of heart and mind that his painting often conveys. At the threshold of our century this 'simpleton' came as a pioneer. At a moment when humanity is wondering whether mechanical distortion has not stifled its creative capacity, the work of the Douanier Rousseau, an antidote to our technical civilization, is still as fresh as prophecy.