Henri Rousseau, known in the art world during and after his death as Le Douanier, or “The Customs Officer” in French, must have seemed a truly odd character. Born May 21, 1844, Rousseau was anything but bohemian, working at his conventional government job and raising his family. Rousseau was the classic dabbler, a man who showed a love of drawing and music since childhood but who could never make a living at it. In the 1880s, Rousseau took up painting seriously, getting some advice from professional artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme but for the most part teaching himself. In 1893, Rousseau retired from his job and indulged himself in his hobby. During his lifetime, critics laughed at his efforts, such as The Sleeping Gypsy (above, from 1897), but today that painting hangs in the MoMA. The Naive or Primitive style Rousseau stumbled upon while trying to paint in the classical tradition made him one of the true originals of Post-Impressionist painting.
Even today, Rousseau’s work looks childlike. In terms of simplicity, Rousseau and Edward Hicks run neck and neck. Part of the charm of Rousseau’s painting is that he wanted desperately to engage art history and the great painters of the past and present but lacked the formal training to copy them closely. Instead, Rousseau’s unique spin on subjects such as War (above, from 1894), with the female figure boldly riding the ragged-looking horse across the image, deconstructs the patriotic fervor of nationalistic works by Delacroix or David. We want to laugh at Rousseau’s poor draftsmanship, but part of that laughter soon gets directed towards the subject of war itself. Picasso and others who followed Rousseau would learn the lessons of Le Douanier the way that the Customs Officer learned the real lessons of his predecessors.
Gerome, Delacroix, and others all fostered a taste for the exotic in French painting, which many artists, including Renoir, tried to capitalize on at one point or another. Rousseau’s Orientalism comes second hand, based on those other artists’ imagery rather than first-hand experience. Because of that distance, Rousseau’s exotic works become dreamlike and mysterious. The Sleeping Gypsy (top of post) and The Snake Charmer (above, from 1907), among many other scenes of lions, tigers, monkeys, and other creatures in strange jungles and deserts, look amazingly modern today. What seemed amateurish and childlike at the turn of the century just a couple decades later seems a precursor of Surrealism. Le Douanier remains an inspiration to all amateur artists who take their love of art and create a unique style despite all the naysayers.