March 6 – July 5, 2015
Venice, Palazzo Ducale – Doge’s Apartment
Extended until September 6, 2015
A SELF-TAUGHT ACADEMIC ?
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.