Le Douanier Rousseau, the poetry of landscape

On 07 May 2019, by Anne Foster

His works appealed to the 20th century’s greatest painters. No wonder – they are at the turning point between Impressionism and Cubism.

Henri Rousseau, called le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910), "La Scierie de Bièvres" (The Bièvres Sawmill), oil on canvas, 41 x 33 cm. Estimate: €100,000/150,000

Tall, almost dancing grass occupies the foreground like a fence, opening out onto the sight of a sawmill in a wooded, rolling landscape. An old man is sitting on a tree trunk in front of a stack of logs. A walker dressed in white has stopped on the path, lined on one side by large-leafed trees. It would look like an exotic land if the cloudy sky did not indicate a location in more temperate climes. Receding planes create an impression of depth, punctuated by a lone streetlamp eliciting a certain melancholy. Henri Rousseau, nicknamed “le Douanier” (the customs officer) because of his occupation, aimed to become like the great masters he admired at the Louvre, where he obtained his copier’s card. Indulgent superiors gave him extra time off from work to paint surrounding landscapes. While posted at various tollhouses around Paris – Quai d’Auteuil, Pont de la Tournelle and Porte de Vanves, for example – he painted, such as here, views of the Paris suburbs and places even further afield. As the Impressionists were holding their last shows, Rousseau sent his works to the Salon des Indépendants. Visiting the 1889 Universal Exhibition, he was spellbound by the lush nature of the colonies. His first “jungle” paintings were shown at the Salon des Indépendants two years later.

“Rousseau becomes more amazing with each passing year,” Vallotton wrote in a Swiss newspaper. “His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed: it is the alpha and omega of painting.” Rousseau wanted to find the same faith that late Middle Ages and Renaissance masters had in their art. His “naïve” paintings are steeped in poetry and a certain tenderness for humble suburban houses, football players running beneath a canopy of trees, fishermen, his family and people he admired, such as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Like Gauguin, he sought to breathe new life into painting – a way to do without artifice. In 1895, Rousseau wrote his own biographical notice. “He has perfected the original genre he created,” he wrote. Painstaking details and flat, overlapping planes characterise his style, from which he never strayed.

Overview (Pre-sale)

A young deer by Raden Saleh

This painting by Raden Saleh, coming on the market for the first time, has a curious history: the unsigned picture was left as a pledge by the artist with a Paris jeweller.

No matter how hard the artist worked, he always amassed debts to finance his high life and travels. So during a period in Paris from 1845 to 1848, Raden Saleh left this Young Stag as a pledge with Alexandre Laisné (1787-1864) in Rue Godot-de-Mauroy in the 9th arrondissement. A century and a half on it has reappeared, still in the same French family: a discovery that also splendidly illustrates the animal artist's talent. Born in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), Saleh emigrated to the Netherlands, where he studied painting. He led a successful career for some twenty years in various European courts before returning to his native country. His most popular subjects are large-scale scenes influenced by Horace Vernet and Eugène Delacroix, where Eastern huntsmen pit their strength against ferocious beasts. On these occasions, Saleh produced magnificent paintings typified by his beautiful rendering of the animals' anatomy, his meticulous execution (here, the depiction of the coat is virtually illusionist) and his Romantic sensibility. The young deer has come to a halt, alarmed by a noise. The expression of its gaze and muscular tension indicate its mistrust and imminent flight. 

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