Palazzo Ducale

Doge's Palace

HENRI ROUSSEAU. Archaic candour

Room 3

Archaic candour

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


Extended until September 6, 2015



This painting was presented at the Salon des Indépendants in 1894 with the above caption by the author: Elle passe effrayante, laissant partout le désespoir, les pleurs et la ruine.

While there may be a reference to the havoc of the Franco-Prussian War witnessed twenty years earlier. Rousseau sought primarly to condemn all conflict with this powerful, visionary allegory. War is woman wielding a sword and a burning torch that recalls the scythe, a symbol of death. She is not actually mounted on the galloping black steed but rather glides beside it over an expanse of scattered bodies, some already torn by crowns, in the timeless, apocalyptic atmospheree af a bleak landscape against a background of fiery clouds.

The other works exhibited here serve to indicate the iconographic sources of Rousseau’s painting and provide comparisons with coeval approaches to the same subject. The female figure personifying war or death has numerous points of reference in ancient painting developd around the theme of the Triunph of Death or Danse Macabre. An interesting example is provided by the work by the Tuscan artist known as Scheggia, brother of the more  famous Masaccio, where lively colour is combined with primitive stylization that is far removed from measured classical balance.

The gerneral sense of devastation and desperation that emerges in Rousseau’s work recalls Goya’s masterly Desastres de la Guerra, a serie of points on the horrors of war produced as a  protest against the atrocities committeed by the French troops that invaded Spain in 1808. Alwayss accompanied by telling captions, they show with grat intensity and raw expressionism the disasters and sufferings inflicted on the Spanish people, themes that Goya also addressed in other celebrated works like freat canvas The Third of May 1808 (Madrid, Prado), painted on 1814.

Among the works painted in the same period as Rousseau’s, the modern Triumphs of Death of the Belgian artist James Ensor takes up a classical subject with expressionistic emotional intensity, while the War of Gaston La Touche, a pupil of Manet close to the Impressionists, is characterized by the marked dynamism and striking use of perspective.

The Douanier instead avoided tumult and impetus to present his scene in a sort of lucid, unreal and icy calm. Greeted with great sarcasm by all but a few, War is regarded as one of the artist’s most important works by modern critics.