Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a self taught painter. He even read "How to Paint" books. After being a "Sunday Painter" for many years, at the age of 41 he devoted himself completely to his art. Although he was a contemporary of Gauguin, Cassatt, and Van Gogh, his style was different than theirs and completely his own. 

Rousseau's paintings are characterized by their fresh childlike quality. His imaginative use of exotic colors, and ideas give his works a mysterious, dream-like quality. He drew on his wide range of interests: wild beasts, the Jungle, war, love, flowers and death. 

The picture on the right is a self portrait of himself with a lamp. 

This painting was exhibited at the first public showing of the Salon Des Independents, and it created quite a (negative) sensation. While other independents could be described as leaders and inventors of new techniques, Rousseau was seen as an innocent who who disregarded all the refinement of French painting and all the achievements of optical illusion to create a "Puppet theatre on canvas"  Rousseau meticulous attention to detail in the tracery of the trees and the full moon in the night sky contrasted sharply with the harlequin figures seemingly hovering in front of this background. 

This picture was painted to commemorate the first international rugby match between France and England which took place in Paris in 1908, The composition is radical, with no transition between bird's eye perspective and frontal view, and the figures hover as if cut out and mounted, collage style, like puppets. The figure in the center, catching the ball to win the game, is Rousseau himself, continuing the theme of Rousseau's dreams of success and fame. 

This is one of 12 of Rousseau's still-life flower pictures that have been found. Unlike other artists, whose paintings were often designed to convey an illusion or idea. Rousseau's paintings were designed to capture the reality of objects or places that he could not own due to his poor circumstances. Rousseau approached his still-life methodically, carefully arranging the flowers by the type and color, placing the vase in the center of the canvas with absolute horizontal and vertical lines in the background. The effect is almost abstract, with no depth or dimension beyond the flat surface of the painting.

This is typical of Rousseau's portraits; the figure faces the front and is fixed in position with a precise outline, always sketched first. Since the face comes at the beginning and holds meaning, relatively little room is left beneath the huge head for the body. Details such as hands, accompanying objects, the pattern of a dress and legs are compressed. Since Rousseau constructed the figure additively, without regard to perspective foreshortening, it turns out in segments like the pieces of a puzzle. 

This was his first of many jungle scenes. Henri never went to a jungle he used his imagination. He did go to the local zoo for inspiration!

The beauty of nature was very important to Rousseau, and towards the end of his life he began to paint strange, exotic- almost surrealistic scenes featuring  wild animals and jungle themes. The innovative style of the jungle pictures brought a break-through for Rousseau; The Snake Charmer was commissioned by the influential Berthe Comtesse de Delaunay, mother of the painter Robert Dleaunay, and resulted in the attention and acceptance in exclusive Parisian circles that Rousseau craved. 

Typical of Rousseau's work, the painting is based on the strict reality of detail, and is built almost collage style. The botanical leaf provides the basic structure, with endless possibilities of repetition, variations, seriation and multiplication and including dozens of shades of green. The leaf guarantees the strict two-dimensionality which other more abstract artists could achieve only at the expense of meaning. Many minute details prevent the eye from resting on any central focus, and each part of the picture is given equal status, with no part subordinated to any other. Disproportionate forms, abrupt changes of color, and backdrops brought into the foreground all contribute to the complexity of the overall effect. 

Many of Rousseau's jungle pictures show some predilection for violence, perhaps indicating some hidden turbulence in the artist's character. The story is that Rousseau was so much in the grip of his imagination while painting these pictures that he felt stifled and afraid and head to open the window. 

Here we see bright colors and not a lot of detail. What do you see in this painting? 

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