As a young man, Pablo Picasso loved to entertain. His motive was to introduce those in his circle to something new, exciting or avante-garde.
In 1908, a group of Paris friends received invitations from Picasso for a festive banquet, in honour of his new friend, the painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910).
That any modernist painting working in Paris in the early twentieth century needed an introduction to colleagues would seem strange today; however, the reclusive Rousseau was no ordinary man. Picasso knew it, and so do subsequent generations of art-lovers.
Rousseau, at age 18, did his military service as a saxophonist in an army band and purportedly spent time in Mexico. In 1866 he obtained a minor post in the French customs department on the outskirts of Paris, and the fellow with the handlebar moustache adopted the nickname Le Douanier, meaning “the little customs official.”
Rousseau took up painting as a hobby around 1884 and, when he retired as a customs official in 1885, he set up a studio to supplement his pension. Often, he could be found sketching jungle scenes, which were plants and exotic flowers from Paris’ botanical gardens.
In 1886, the pointillist painter, Paul Signac presented Rousseau to the Society of Independent Artists (those French modernist painters who were not allowed to exhibit in traditional salons), and he showed his works at the independent’s salon regularly from that time.
Contemporary accounts reveal that Rousseau associated with Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and other nineteenth-century artists in France, and his work was also admired by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Odilon Redon and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Despite his regular contact with other artists, Rousseau remained largely undiscovered as an artistic talent. It was only after he came to the attention of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1905, that Rousseau became a celebrity.
Once, when visited by Picasso, Rousseau is reportedly said to him: “We are the two greatest artists of our age – you in the Egyptian manner I in the modern.” Admittedly what Rousseau meant by the “Egyptian manner” is challenging to interpret and may be attributed to his acknowledged eccentricity.
Indeed, it is this degree of eccentricity that makes Rousseau such a remarkable personality. He remains a significant figure in the history of art as the most fabulous self-taught, modern instinctual painting (sometimes called primitive) and also for the naivete and ingenuousness of his character.
Rousseau did not identify himself wholly as an Impressionist. Instead, he copes with solid objects. Details create rich textures. Above all, Rousseau is concerned with mood and the suggestion of tragedy. The full play of the subconscious is intimated.
Rousseau’s identity with the French people was well expressed. Jean Cassou, the former director of the Luxembourg Museum, wrote, “Rousseau translated the dreams and thoughts of traditional France, a nation of artisans, half-peasant, half-bourgeoise, a country which produces good-hearted and simple men, lovers of flowers, painters and sculptors – humorous and diligent.”