Palazzo Ducale

Doge's Palace

HENRI ROUSSEAU. Archaic candour

Room 1

Archaic candour

March 6 – July 5, 2015
Venice, Palazzo Ducale – Doge’s Apartment


Extended until September 6, 2015



Rousseau retired from his post as a toll collector – though known as the Douanier, he was not in fact a customs officer – and embarked on a  career as a painter in 1893, showing work in public for the first time in 1885.

Critics were struck from the very outset by his peculiar style, something  impossible to classify in terms of the schools of the period. Rousseau was  neither an Impressionist nor a Symbolist nor a Pointillist. His painting was  something completely new and different from everything else that was going  on at the time in Paris. He was soon given the somewhat discouraging label  of an “artisan”, a naive or primitive painter. Most critics found his work ignorant  and almost ridiculous.

The myth that he was an uneducated, self-taught painter soon spread. In actual  fact, while Rousseau never attended art school, he was familiar with “beautiful  painting” and enamoured of works like Daphnis and Chloe (1852) by the  already famous Jean-Léon Gérôme. He copied works  in the Louvre, the Musée du Luxembourg and the museums of Versailles  and Saint-Germain, and was involved in some undertakings with the painter  Félix-Auguste Clément, his neighbour on Rue de Sèvres, who had achieved  fame as the winner of the Prix de Rome in 1856 with The Return of Tobias.

He also obtained certification from the Association Philotechnique of Paris  on 24 July 1903 as a teacher of drawing and painting on free courses for adults. Rousseau was therefore well aware of what a painter would have to paint  in order to be recognized as an academic but stubbornly chose a different  path with the support of Gérôme, and Clément. As he recalls in his short  autobiographical note, they advised him to be true to his style and go where  his inspiration led.

Very soon, however, the Douanier identified other ideal  masters, all in the sphere of academic painting, like Benjamin-Constant,  Edmond-Eugène Valton and above all William Bouguereau, whose nudes  he admired to the point of asking his supplier for the paint used by the master  for his flesh tones. He drew upon Bouguereau’s monumental Equality Before  Death (1848), where an angel of death covers the naked body of a youth  with a shroud, for his allegorical painting War, on show in room 3.

Appreciated  by academic artists as well as painters like Gauguin, Seurat and Signac, a friend  of Apollinaire and Jarry as well as Picasso, Delaunay, Max Weber, Wassily  Kandinsky and many others, Rousseau was strongly connected with the birth  of contemporary art and is most important practitioners from the very start.