Le Douanier Rousseau, the poetry of landscape
His works appealed to the 20th century’s greatest painters. No wonder – they are at the turning point between Impressionism and Cubism.
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.