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Henri Rousseau: Pour feter bébé (L’Enfant au polichinelle)
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais



By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 30 May 2006 —A fascinating exhibition presenting 50 important works by the French painter, Henri Rousseau (1844 - 1910), better known as Le Douanier Rousseau, is currently on view at the Grand Palais in Paris. The exhibition, which includes works from Europe, Japan, Russia and America, will go to Washington, D.C. in July.

Rousseau was a self-taught artist, a humble employee of the municipal customs office, who came to painting late in life. He was born poor, and died in poverty, recognition of his undoubted talent coming after his death; Although half of his works concentrated on views of Paris and its suburbs, including the metal bridges, factory chimneys and telegraph poles he saw from his place of work, he has become legendary for his jungle scenes. Contrary to popular belief, these exotic works, shown alongside his urban landscapes, portraits and allegories, were all composed in the French capital which he never left.

He never went to the tropical forests he portrayed, but went to see his lions and tigers in the Paris zoos. He strolled around the Jardin d'Acclimatation and saw stuffed animals in the Natural History Museum. Inspiration also came from photographs, post-cards and his imagination was caught by illustrated travel books, all of which are on display. Copies of the magazine, Le Petit Journal, containing brightly coloured engravings from the Sunday colour supplement found in his studio after his death, gave him as well as the general public the impression that distant lands were accessible and his fantasies were very much a product of the time.

The exhibition contains a whole series of monkey paintings, jungle scenes populated by apes and chimpanzees like those he must have seen at the Jardin des Plantes and show quite friendly animals who happily jump from branch to branch. But these are the exceptions, for the rest of his jungle pictures concentrate on the cruelty of nature.

Henri Rousseau: Nègre attaqué par un jaguar
Photo courtesy of Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

Combat de tigre et de bufle, is menacing. One animal is eating the other and even the bananas hanging down seem threatening. And indeed, as one looks around, all the pictures in one room portrayed something or someone eating or being eaten.  Moreover, in Nègre attaqué par un jaguar, we are given the impression that if the man wasn't grabbed by the tiger, then he'd have been strangled by the trees. The painting contains something absolutely pitiless. Cheval attaqué par un jaguar continues in the same vein. It is also quite merciless, for in a jungle clearing, a grey horse with a white mane is being devoured by the jaguar against a brilliant background of exotic flowers.

Apparently, the term,"Fauvism" dates from when Le Lion ayant faim se jette sur l'antilope (The Hungry Lion) was shown at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. What makes this painting particularly nasty is the almost idyllic setting of luxurious vegetation with a beautiful red sunset behind, and a lion dripping in blood is devouring an antelope while other animals can be seen lurking in the trees, waiting their turn. In the centre of the work is an owl with blood drooling down from his cruel, curved beak. These works are all hard, cruel and implacable, excepting one, Le Rêve (The Dream), one of his most famous and most beautiful of all his paintings, completed the year before he died.

Henri Rousseau: Le Lion ayant faim se jette sur l'antilope
Photo courtesy of  Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

Le Rêve (The Dream) shows his childhood sweetheart, Yadwigha, lounging naked in the jungle on a Louis- Philippe style sofa. No attempt of any kind of perspective has been made, and here an elephant, there two tigers, peer through  flowers three or four times larger than life, animals and nature all charmed by the music of the flutist, himself no larger than the brightly coloured snake which slithers past.  The scene takes place by the light of a silvery moon. 

Henri Rousseau: Le Rêve
Photo courtesy of  Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais

What does make this exhibition interesting however, is the fact that it reveals Rousseau's sources of inspiration. One can study his album of wild animals and see the outlines he traced and feel free to admire or criticise his work, bearing in mind that in 1904 many of these pictures came under virulent attack. He was accused by press and public alike for what they considered a lack of skill and it wasn't until later that his lack of perspective became admired by other artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and Delaunay.

Hailed as a precursor to primitivism and surrealism, where the familiar becomes strange, and the strange, familiar, his figures are far removed from everyday life. I don't like his hatchet faced woman with hands twice the size of the little cat cowering in the corner of a work, nor yet Pour feter bébé, where a monstrous child dangles its father in its hand, like a puppet.  Other paintings, including Un soir de carnaval, create a sense of unease.  What, with Rousseau, looks poetic, peaceful and serene is not. His work disturbs in a most unpleasant way, the eerie atmosphere pervading his earlier works forerunning his pitiless jungle scenes.

But then, I have never liked Le Douanier Rousseau's paintings and this exhibition, excellent as it is, with the jungle paintings at the centre does little to change my mind.  Much of what we see could be illustrations from some particularly nasty children's book........... don't go into that forest, dear, there's a monster waiting to gobble you up!   These works for me were, and remain, curiosities. 

Le Douanier Rousseau, which was presented at the Tate Modern in London over the winter, and which will remain at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris until 19 June, will be opening at the National Gallery of Washington on 16 July 2006.


Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at

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