For Henri Rousseau, naïveté was a powerful artistic technique.
By Jonathon Keats
According to a popular story, Henri Rousseau became an artist on account of a prank played by the absurdist writer Alfred Jarry. Rousseau was on duty as a gabelou at the Pont des Arts in Paris, collecting tolls for the municipal government, when Jarry swaggered up to him and said, “My friend, I can see in your face that you’re a painter.” Another tale switches Jarry for Paul Gauguin, who tried to teach Rousseau painting on a wager.
The truth is that Rousseau needed no encouragement and had no teacher. While he did make his living as a toll collector, his career in painting was entirely of his own creation, as singular and spectacular as the jungle scenes that made his name. Just how outlandish this background seemed—and how peculiar his paintings were—is suggested by the legends invented to explain the canvases he began showing at the unjuried annual Salon des Indépendants in 1886, and continued exhibiting throughout Paris until his death, at the age of 66, in 1910.
“Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet with his eyes closed,” reported one Parisian journalist in 1891, attempting to account for the artist’s evident ignorance of “correct” proportion and perspective. Many others presented him as a “primitive” whose eccentric compositions (including trees that cast no shadows and people seemingly unacquainted with gravity) were a result of raw innocence. For instance, the painter Camille Pissarro proclaimed that in Rousseau’s work “emotion takes the place of training,” and the artist and critic Félix Vallotton praised Rousseau’s “self-sufficiency and childlike naïveté,” neatly wrapping compliment in condescension.
Even as Rousseau was taken up by the young Modernists coming of age at the turn of the 20th century, in their flattery there was almost always an underlying attitude of superiority, the sense that the old man didn’t know what he was doing any more than he did in the legends involving Gauguin and Jarry. Though genuinely admiring him for revealing “the new possibilities of simplicity,” Vasily Kandinsky grouped his paintings with folk art in the Blaue Reiter almanac, and Pablo Picasso treated him less like a colleague than like a mascot, honoring Rousseau with a drunken banquet that verged on farce. One has the sense that Rousseau made the Modernists nervous, because they saw that many of their strategies for subverting academic tradition had been anticipated by his unrealistic realism. “And when I think that it wasn’t us who influenced him; no, he influenced us—that’s unbelievable,” wrote Fernand Léger, aptly expressing the effect Rousseau’s precedence must have had on the monumental Modernist ego.
Rousseau seems to have relished the attention without dwelling on the patronizing undertone. He typically acquiesced to people’s perceptions of him, as when they impishly—and inaccurately—nicknamed him the Douanier. (A douanier is a customs inspector, altogether different from the position of gabelou he held prior to his retirement in 1893.) Moreover, Rousseau was accomplished at perceiving only what suited him. For example the violet rosette he wore in his lapel, the prestigious Palmes Academiques award, had been given to him by mistake, because he had the same last name as the intended recipient. He knew about the error yet persisted in claiming the honor, even in his many petitions for official state commissions.
Of course all of his proposals were rejected. Despite the fact that he painted only in the official genres—portrait, landscape and allegory—by traditional standards he did so laughably, as in the case of his Representatives of Foreign Powers Arriving to Hail the Republic as a Sign of Peace, a monumental 1907 canvas depicting nearly two dozen world leaders including King Edward VII and Czar Nicholas II stiffly stacked up on a podium next to a lion resembling a cross between the devil and a dachshund. To most government officials, he must have come off as a senile Sunday painter. A few may have perceived a sort of sly satire in his paintings, playing on the ridiculously pastiched allegories then in fashion, created by an artist who knew precisely what he was doing.
This latter opinion, that Rousseau was an ironist, has become the prevailing one since Rousseau’s death. In the landmark 1984 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, curators Carolyn Lanchner and William Rubin presented his painting as “pragmatic artlessness”. In the current superb exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler and the Guggenheim Bilbao, curatorial consultant Christopher Green concurs, calling Rousseau’s naïveté “deliberate.” But the truth lies in between the extremes of ignorance and manipulativeness, and Rousseau’s violet rosette is the key. As in life, on canvas Rousseau was able to make himself believe.
“Rousseau had so strong a sense of reality that when he painted a fantastic subject, he sometimes took fright and, trembling all over, had to open the window,” wrote the Douanier’s champion and unofficial biographer Guillaume Apollinaire. When it came to fact, Apollinaire was notoriously unreliable—he falsely claimed that Rousseau’s jungle paintings were inspired by his tour of duty in Mexico fighting for Emperor Maximilian—yet there’s an aspect of Rousseau beyond the reach of literal biography that Apollinaire was able to capture better than any scholar. As Apollinaire’s account suggests, Rousseau was naïve. He was naïve because he chose to be so. More than any specific way of laying down paint, naïveté was his artistic technique. His genius for it made him the envy of the Surrealists, who tried unsuccessfully to reach his enlightened ignorance through theory, and it made him a sort of prototype for Andy Warhol, whose talent for naïvely embracing the values of his society produced the most compelling portrait of 20th-century America ever achieved.
Warhol accomplished that feat by emulating mindless machinery such as the tape recorder and the Polaroid camera he routinely carried. (“Machines have less problems,” he told Time in 1963. “I’d like to be a machine.”) Rousseau’s method was also mechanical to the extent that his paintings were often composites of images he collected, many from popular sources. For instance, the two wild beasts at the center of Rousseau’s 1905 masterpiece The Hungry Lion were painted by copying a pair of stuffed animals pictured on a postcard. The difference between the two artists is in the transformation from naïve observation to artistic creation. Whereas Warhol mass-produced art based on mass-produced commodities, Rousseau made unique syntheses of the artifices, whether diplomatic or taxidermic, that were characteristic of his society.
The departure of Rousseau’s imagery from observed reality paradoxically gives it an authority lacking in the picture postcards and museum dioramas from which he drew his imagery. In his own time, the newspapers often referred to his work as “sincere” because his apparent ineptitude suggested a man without guile. And in fact he was guileless, allowing his paintings to follow the unreliable contours of his reveries, which by their very nature were honest.
“The hungry lion, throwing himself upon the antelope, devours him,” Rousseau wrote as a sort of extended title-caption in the pamphlet for the 1905 Salon d’Automne, in which The Hungry Lion was first shown. “The panther stands by awaiting the moment when he, too, can claim his share. Birds of prey have ripped out pieces of flesh from the poor animal that sheds a tear!” It doesn’t take a National Geographic correspondent to know that wild antelopes don’t cry like Frenchmen, and had Rousseau looked into the matter, he surely wouldn’t have made that error. Likewise his ludicrous inclusion of a nude woman on a divan in The Dream, 1910, a motif memorably described by Apollinaire as “that Louis Philippe sofa lost in the virgin forest.” However, those slips, and countless others like them, are what give his exotica a truth never achieved by Picasso, let alone Gauguin. In his ability to suspend disbelief, to take a leap of faith, and simply to follow his fantasies with his paints, Rousseau transcended the mythologizing (and self-mythologizing) of Gauguin and Picasso, the quagmire of Modernism. Emotion did take the place of training, as Pissarro observed. It took the place of aesthetic intention, of external motivation.
Rousseau’s naïveté was subtractive, a letting-go of what he did not need to know, a shedding of assumptions in order to eliminate distractions vying for attention beyond the picture plane. His naïveté gave his paintings autonomy. The whole world was in the frame. The Douanier had nothing to declare.