Mr. Rousseau took a seat on his favorite bench and closed his eyes, soaking in the glossy humidity of the air. He never knew what the morning might bring, and that particular day was no different! The sun was shining bright, to the delight of the third graders pushing their noses on a massive glass wall, hoping to track down a snake, a mountain lion, or a beetle.
‘Step away from the glass!’ The children pushed each other, pretending to be ferocious beasts with googly eyes and hair parted down in the middle — a sighting so rare in the wild, they would be categorized in a league of their own. When the group moved further away so that only a faint murmur was audible, Rousseau finally opened his eyes and peered at the last page in his sketchbook.
It is believed that Henri Rousseau spent hundreds of hours drawing in the Jardins des Plantes in Paris, and countless more in his own head, for the depictions he authored were so vivid and raw, they were bearing a photographic yet allegorical likeness.
Art on uncomplicated terms
Rousseau was born in Laval, France, and grew up with aspirations to join the military forces. When his experience in the army took him nowhere near the battlefield, he took a job as an office clerk in 1868, becoming Le Douanier (the customs officer).
An avid admirer of the Parisian botanical garden, he took inspiration from nature and started depicting jungle scenes, with lush vegetation and birds of vivid feathers. His art was rejected on various occasions, most notoriously at the Salon des Champs-Élysées, where his paintings were perceived as childish and flat.
At the time, the art world was timidly dipping its fingertips in primitive art, so the Parisian circle of bohemian artists excluded Rousseau with a stiff upper lip. Nevertheless, Rousseau found two academic artists who believed in his raw talent (Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme) and even helped him get an official permit to sketch in French museums.
Rousseau was undeterred in his craft and continued to paint, in spite of the criticism and the ridicule. He successfully exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and became critically acclaimed once he “let nature be his only teacher” (advice attributed to Clément and Gérôme).
Primitive art in Europe
Towards the end of the 19th century, it became fashionable to explore the art styles of newly occupied colonies, and France was no exception. Gauguin left Europe in 1891 for Tahiti, around the same time when Rousseau started exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendants.
Primitive art was a trademark of pieces done by artists without previous training, however, when they discovered the tribal distortions of form, Picasso, Modigliani, and Gauguin were mesmerized.
“They excluded details, realism, linear perspective, and natural colors and created abstract works in a way that has been impossible up to then. They also celebrated sensuality and the concept of the unconsciousness.” Art: The Whole Story by Stephen Farthing
Rousseau’s work was organically accepted in the Parisian circles and with time, it became incredibly successful. Picasso was a fan of Rousseau’s googly-eyed tigers and plants with a texture almost inviting to touch. He even hosted a banquet in the painter’s honor in Montmartre, proving that the rite of passage was already completed.
Whether Rousseau’s work would have been embraced in a different time period is hard to say, especially since the art world was for a considerable number of years a hermetic world. Unless the shackles of the art cosmos were in desperate need of a rattle!