June 15, 2016

"The Douanier Rousseau" at the Musée d'Orsay

With the threat of flooding from an overflowing Seine no longer imminent, the museums whose treasures were threatened are slowly reopening.  One of those closed was the Musée d'Orsay whose location directly on the river's edge made it especially vulnerable to high water damage.  Fortunately the worst did not happen and by last Tuesday the Musee d'Orsay was back in business and I could go to see the show I had most wanted to visit while in Paris - "The Douanier Rousseau:  Archaic Candor".

"Myself: Portrait - Landscape", 1890

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was by profession a toll collector for the City of Paris, but by avocation he was a painter - a hobby he pursued with dogged determination after reaching the age of forty.  Lacking formal art training, Rousseau sought to imitate the masters he had seen at Parisian museums but always maintained his own individuality.  After years of practise, when he was an accomplished painter able to produce a finely finished painting, Rousseau recognized that it was the charm and innocence of his naïve style that made him special and shifted his efforts to maintain this unique amateur "look".

"Still Life with Coffee Pot", 1910

While Rousseau drew upon classical academic artists such as Carpaccio and Gérôme for inspiration, he remained loyal to his flat, child-like style of painting.  Completely out of proportion, his portraits and landscapes are exuberant in feel but unrealistic in composition.  Nevertheless, his work was embraced and even imitated by many avant garde artists at the turn of the century.  Indeed, such luminaries as Picasso, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Delaunay and Botero collected Rousseau's paintings, as did the writer Alfred Jarry who is responsible for Rousseau's nickname "Le Douanier [The Customs Officer]".

"Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to
Salute the Republic as a Sign of Peace", 1907

The exhibition now on at the Musée d'Orsay is divided into themes such as "Portrait-Landscapes", "The Muse Inspiring the Poet", "Monumental Women" and "Cruel Childhoods" with each gallery showing works by Henri Rousseau beside paintings by modern masters whom he inspired.  For example, it is not difficult to see the similarities between Rousseau's "Child with a Doll"...

...and Pablo Picasso's portrait of his own daughter "Maya With her Doll" done in 1938...
The curators saved the very best for last as visitors must wait until the final room to be rewarded with Rousseau's amazing jungle paintings.  Keeping in mind that he was entirely self-taught and had never traveled much beyond the Paris city limits, walking into a room filled with his large scale paintings of exotic flora and fauna is nothing short of breath taking!  Henri Rousseau's vivid imagination and masterful depictions of wild animals in jungle settings, drawn completely from what he read in books and saw in botanical gardens and zoos, are mesmerizing.

I have always loved the paintings of Henri Rousseau and admired him for being an autodidact of such talent and perseverance, but I had not realized how truly influential he had been on modern art of the early 20th century.  This show is as much a tribute to the power of perseverance as it is a retrospective of a remarkable artist.

 "The Dream", 1910

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