The Douanier Rousseau – “archaic candour” – at the Musée d’Orsay



Three years after their joint Edouard Manet exhibition, the Musée d’Orsay and the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia are presenting another major exhibition, this time dedicated to the Douanier Rousseau. After an initial stint at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice in 2015, the exhibition will be moving to the Musée d’Orsay from 22 March to 17 July 2016.

Henri Rousseau (LE DOUANIER ROUSSEAU) masterpieces from the collections of the Orsay and l’Orangerie museums (including the Snake Charmer and La Noce) are being shown alongside canvases lent by prestigious international institutions. In addition, the exhibition – “a critical investigation of his art based on a consideration of the notion of archaism” – includes works by Seurat, Delaunay, Kandinsky, Picasso and a number of lesser-known artists in order to highlight Rousseau’s influence as a “father of Modernism”.

Birth of a Modern form of Naive

Henri Julien Félix Rousseau (or le Douanier Rousseau as he is often called in France in reference to his activity as a customs official) was born in Laval (Mayenne) in 1844. Nothing predestined him to a career as an artist. He studied law and moved to Paris in 1868, where he worked with a bailiff before becoming an excise duty collection officer, hence the nickname which was apparently attributed to him later by his friend Alfred Jarry. Rousseau began painting during his job as an excise duty collection officer, i.e. late. In addition, he taught himself, starting as a copyist, including at the Louvre as of 1884. Aged 49, he retired to work on his art full-time. A self-taught genius, Henri Rousseau improvised the rules of perspective in a “naïve” and immediately recognizable style which earned him rejection from art critics, but admiration from avant-garde artists. Naive, childish, clumsy and primitive for some, his work looked free, bold and modern to his admirers, who included none other than Guillaume Apollinaire, Felix Valloton, Alfred Jarry, André Breton, Robert Delaunay, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and André Derain.
A talented colourist with a fertile imagination, Rousseau added a fanciful dimension to the real, an invented imaginary exoticism. He never set foot outside France but assiduously attended the Natural History Museum and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. His big cats and jungles are pure inventions. Although Henri Rousseau described himself as a “realist painter”, he also confided: “When I am in the greenhouses looking at strange plants from exotic countries, I believe I go into a dream”. The ‘naive realist’ was in fact paving the way for Surrealism.

… Poverty and acknowledgment

After a first appearance on the art scene at the Salon des refusés in 1885, Rousseau made regular contributions to the Salon des Independants where he was noticed by Camille Pissarro and Odilon Redon, but very few of his works sold. When he died in 1910, Rousseau was so poor that he was buried in a mass grave. Only seven people attended his funeral, including Paul Signac, president of the Société des Indépendants. He died too early for success, disappearing just as orders started arriving from collectors and art dealers … Shortly after his death, the Salon des Independants organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1911.
Today, his fame is global. One of his most beautiful paintings, The Dream (1910), is in the MoMA’s permanent collection (donated by Nelson Rockefeller) and his market is stronger in New York than in Paris. Nearly half of his auction turnover (46%) is generated in the United States compared with 28% in France, 11% in Italy, 8% in Germany and around 3% in Switzerland. His price index soared in the 1990s when one of his paintings fetched his auction record of $4 million. This record rewarded a portrait of art dealer and collector Joseph Brummer (1909, 116 x 88.5 cm, Christie’s London, 29 November 1993) which is now in London’s National Gallery. Although his market is no longer driven by works of such importance, it is not entirely deserted either. A number of paintings and drawings appear at auctions every year. Small oils measuring around twenty centimeters are now worth between $30,000 and $60,000 on average (the best fetch substantially more) and larger works sell for at least 10x that range. On 8 December 2015, the French auctioneer Tajan sold five Rousseau paintings in a range from $40,000 to $450,000. The most expensive was a painting depicting a lion eating a boa (Lion dévorant un boa), a museum-quality canvas measuring 65.5 x 81cm. The retrospective exhibition jointly organised by the Venice and Orsay museums almost certainly contributed to the result as the painting was acquired for $200,000 less in 2008 at Koller in Switzerland.
In 2015, nine Rousseau paintings and drawings were submitted to auction versus an average of five over the previous five years. The market is therefore very limited, although with a denser offer in Europe than in the United States. New York only offers rare and exceptional pieces. A couple of acquisition opportunities are coming up in Paris with two small oils at Tajan (8 March 2016): Paysage à l’avion (38 x 55 cm) estimated €60,000 – €100,000 and a Cheval attaqué par deux tigres (54.3 x 65.3 cm) estimated between €150,000 – €200,000.