The art of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) transcended traditional borderlines and entered untrodden territory.
A customs official, Rousseau had no formal art training and initially painted in his free time. Many years passed before
his art, non-academic and long considered merely naive, found recognition in the Paris salons. It was poets like Apollinaire
and artists like Picasso, Léger, Delaunay, and later Kandinsky, who were the first to appreciate Rousseau´s outstanding significance.
On the centenary of his death, the Fondation Beyeler is devoting an exhibition to this pioneer of classical modern art, comprising of about 40
masterworks from renowned European and American museums and private collections. Viewers will discover Rousseau´s unusual portraits and the
poetic paintings of French cities and landscapes in which he made visible the transition from the mundane to the mysterious. The exhibition
culminates in a significant group of the artist´s famous jungle paintings. Although he had never actually seen a jungle, he created his own
highly imaginative and colorful vision of it and its exotic denizens in his paintings. With his wonderful, often dreamlike compositions,
Rousseau stood for the rediscovery of fantasy at the inception of modernism. He succeeded in opening new worlds for art, which influenced
the Cubists and Surrealists and continue to excite art lovers young and old to this day.
The exhibition was curated by Philippe Büttner in cooperation with Christopher Green. The Musée d'Orsay and the Musée de l'Orangerie in
Paris gave exceptional support.
Henri Rousseau is born on May 21 in Laval, France.
Moves to Paris, where he works as a bailiff's clerk.
Marries Clémence Boitard (d. 1888).
Takes a position with the municipal customs department in Paris. Possibly makes first attempts in painting.
Obtains permission to copy in the Louvre and other Paris museums for study purposes.
Rousseau participates for the first time in the Salon des Refusés, with two paintings. He lives in the Montparnasse quarter,
where he would remain despite changing studios several times.
Represented in the jury-free exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants (est. 1884), where he would continue
to exhibit annually (except in 1899 and 1900).
Visits the Paris World Fair, which deeply impresses him and inspires him to write a vaudeville play in three acts, Une visite à l'exposition de 1889.
In December, Rousseau takes early retirement on a modest pension, in order to devote himself entirely to painting. Meets the poet Alfred Jarry.
Weds Joséphine Noury (d. 1903).
Serious financial problems. Rousseau's wife opens a stationery shop, where she also offers her husband's paintings for sale.
At the Salon d'Automne, Rousseau shows the jungle picture Le lion, ayant faim (Room 9). This is his first painting to pass a jury.
Makes the acquaintance of the young painter Robert Delaunay, who would become one of his closest artist friends and greatest admirer.
Second participation at the Salon d'Automne, with Joyeux farceurs (Room 9). Meets the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
At the Salon d'Automne, shows the major jungle picture La charmeuse de serpents (Room 9), which is acquired by Delaunay's mother.
Rousseau becomes involved in a banking fraud, for which he spends a short time in jail and in 1909 is sentenced to a fine and two years prison on probation.
Pablo Picasso buys Rousseau's Portrait de femme (Room 5) at a second-hand shop in Montmartre, and holds the legendary 'Banquet Rousseau' in honour of the artist in his studio. The guests include Georges Braque, Fernande Olivier, Marie Laurencin, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Gertrude and Leo Stein.
Rousseau gives music and drawing instruction, and organizes 'Soirées familiales et artistiques', evenings attended, in addition to local people, by young avant-garde artists such as Picasso, Braque, Delaunay, and Brancusi.
Sells pictures to his future biographer, Wilhelm Uhde, and to art dealers Ambroise Vollard and Joseph Brummer.
At the Salon des Indépendants, shows the large-format jungle picture Le rève (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
On September 2, Rousseau dies of blood poisoning. His funeral is attended by only seven mourners, including Paul Signac and Sonia and Robert Delaunay. Apollinaire later composes the epitaph, which is engraved on the stone by Brancusi and Ortiz de Zarate.
The Salon des Indépendants devotes a posthumous retrospective to Rousseau, organized by Delaunay and comprising over forty works.
The Basel Kunsthalle mounts the first large Rousseau retrospective.
This painting was exhibited in Paris in 1886, in the context of Rousseau's first participation in the independent
artists exhibition, the Salon des Indépendants. By the time he painted it, Impressionism, once disparaged, had found acceptance.
Yet Rousseau proceeded in an entirely different way from, say, Monet. Rather than attempting to capture the fleeting effects of
light, he imagined a dreamlike, nocturnal scene. We see a wintery wood, depicted by placing trees one behind the next, and in the
foreground a pair of carnival revellers stepping out, arm in arm, into the moonlight. Far from the festive turmoil, they become
witnesses to the magic of nature at night - and simultaneously embody it.
Rousseau painted a considerable number of portraits. These two large female portraits are among
the most unusual in his oeuvre. One shows a youthful woman whose figure looms large in front of a landscaped garden. She
fits in perfectly with the delicate, artificially cultivated slice of nature at her feet. Her head projects far above a
few shrubs and trees behind her. At this point, the garden takes on a denser, wilder appearance. The charming lady's tall
figure seems to assume the role of intermediary between us and the mysteries of nature.
The second picture, which once belonged to a famous admirer of Rousseau - Pablo Picasso - is quite different. Here, too,
we see two zones: in the foreground a sort of terrace lined by well-tended potted flowers. Beyond the balustrade, in contrast,
rises a wild, rocky landscape with a waterfall. Between the two zones stands an awe-inspiring matron. Brandishing a broken branch,
she seems not particularly taken by the wilderness behind her. Would she let us pass if we tried to reach it?
Rousseau loved to paint suburban scenes and landscapes in the environs of Paris. Here, he has depicted
a small park surrounded by palatial buildings. The lawn is carefully mown, tidy little paths lead through the area, and no pedestrian
would think of stepping on the grass in this typically French park. Yet Rousseau was actually more interested in something else:
the contrast between this perfectly cultivated zone and the slice of much wilder nature visible through an opening in the wall
at the left. The transition from order to wilderness, the unknown, was in fact one of Rousseau's greatest themes, and here he has
discovered a bit of wilderness in suburban France, of all places.
This jungle picture, the earliest known by Rousseau, is a major work of late-nineteenth-century
European painting. It came on the scene with the force of a revelation. At a time when Monet was concerning himself
with the light falling on Rouen Cathedral, this self-taught painter dared to depict an eerie, rainy jungle prowled by a
dangerous-looking tiger. Though Rousseau said he had actually travelled in such regions, we know that he knew them only by hearsay,
from books and reports, and their animals and plants at most from the zoo or botanical garden. No matter, because Rousseau was above
all a wonderful storyteller and inventor. For his jungle was essentially a product of his imagination. Not painting from nature was
his motto, but reinventing it from the ground up. Here, a gifted artist has penetrated to the unconscious heart of the jungle and
infused it with an entirely new presence.
La charmeuse de serpents, 1907
In this epoch-making work, Rousseau added a new facet to his legendary jungles.
His earlier jungle pictures were frequently dangerous places, where wild animals lurked, battles took place,
and a poetically glorified Darwinism reigned. Here, in contrast, something entirely different occurs. The wild
jungle landscape appears calm and tranquil. On the left is a glittering river with a long-legged bird standing on
the bank, and in the middle we discover one of Rousseau’s most marvellous creations – the tall figure of the
charmeuse de serpents, the snake charmer. She has tamed the jungle for us. Snakes coil trustingly around her,
charmed by the music the mysterious dark figure plays on her flute. Music, we might say, is capable of appeasing
the wilderness and reconciling it with our civilized standpoint in a museum. Himself a passionate musician, with this
painting Rousseau created one of the icons of modernism.
When we view these pictures side by side in the exhibition, the difference between the scenes depicted
becomes quite obvious: a rural wedding versus a jungle populated with little monkeys peering inquisitively out of the vegetation.
Yet still, many similarities are apparent, for in both cases, the figures are grouped perfectly symmetrically in the middle of
the plant decor. And in both cases, we gain the impression that they are looking at a photographer whose camera is about to go
'click'. Whether of France or an imaginary jungle, Rousseau constructed the images in a very similar way. Layering form over form,
leaf over leaf, he built dreamlike visual realms that at the same time have a delightfully surreal effect.
Monkeys, Suns, Balloons - Literary Apercus to Henri Rousseau’s Paintings
(Reading in German)
Thursday, February 11, 2010, 7 pm
Concert with Pierre Favre, Solo Percussionist
Thursday, March 11, 2010, 7.30 pm
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The catalogue, published in a German and an English edition by Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, contains essays by Philippe Büttner,
Christopher Green, Franz Hohler, and Daniel Kramer, as well as notes on the works by Philippe Büttner, Nancy Ireson, Daniel Kramer,
and Simone Küng. 120 pages, 87 illustrations including 82 in full color, CHF 64.-.
The utilization of visual material from the present exhibition pages for publication purposes is expressly prohibited!
Forêt tropicale avec singes,1910
Oil on canvas, 129,5 x 162,5 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington, John Hay Whitney Collection
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Courtesy of the Board of Trustees