Musée d’Orsay

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Anxious to account for contemporary life, Impressionism favoured the representation of human figures in their daily surroundings and captured the “modern” man in his routine activities, both in cities and in the countryside.

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The Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Candour

Henri Rousseau is a painter who is at once familiar and yet unknown. A key influencer on his contemporaries, he is considered the great “naïve” painter of the late 19th century and one of the founding fathers of modern art. The Musée d’Orsay presents many of his major works plus those of artists he inspired in the temporary exhibit entitled “Le Douanier Rousseau, Archaic Candour”.

Rousseau was nicknamed “le Douanier” because of his regular job as a low-level clerk at the Paris City Customs (Douane is the French word for Customs). He never received any formal training in painting, but rather spent a lot of his free time roaming the galleries of the Louvre, where he took note of Renaissance composition and the use of color. He was inspired by illustrated children’s books. He was also a frequent visitor to the Jardin des Plantes and the Menagerie, where he could see flora and fauna, both of which are signature elements of his work. It wasn’t until his late 40’s that he was able to devote himself to painting, developing his seemingly simple, childlike, primitive style.

Rousseau often painted from photographs and consequently he depicts people in very rigid, stiff positions. His “Wedding Party” is such a work. He’s taken a formal portrait and placed it in an unruly garden setting. There is the illusion of depth, but the scale is completely off.  The bride appears to hover above the ground, floating into the grandmother figure. The dog in the foreground is disproportionately large. And yet with all its flwas, the painting is charming.

Similarly, in his “Myself, Portrait-Landscape” he places himself in the center of the picture – and the painting is clearly all about him! Everything else is downplayed, little, a small detail. Does this indicate how serious he was about art or was he a narcissist?

“War” is a deeply disturbing and extremely familiar painting. This painting won high praise when it was shown at the Salon des Independents in 1894. It stands out from the rest of his work due to the vibrant, “angry” color palette, the devastated terrain used as a background and the overall underlying message. Many symbols and codes are present, the most significant being the flying horse, seen in Medieval art, and the female figure as allegory of war. More of a young girl than a woman, she is wild, holding a sword in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. She soars over the battleground strewn with “uniformless” bodies, wreaking havoc. It’s not clear if Rousseau was referring to a specific war or if his intent was to comment on the general destruction that war brings. 

In contrast, his “Snake Charmer”, another very famous painting, takes place in a lush, green, tropical jungle. It is a tranquil nocturnal setting with a full moon that shines brightly on the luxuriant vegetation. A mysterious woman – could it be Eve? – plays a flute and enchants both bird and serpent. 

The exhibit concludes with a room dedicated to many of the jungle scenes iconic to Rousseau.  There is much more than meets the eye in many of these paintings, whether it is silly monkeys playing, oblivious to the snake lurking in the trees, or a flat out battle where one animal becomes dinner for his opponent. Rousseau claimed to have been inspired by what he saw during a military expedition to Mexico…..except he never left France!  His vivid imagination is present in his work and makes this exhibit a pleasant urban escape.

Reviewed by KV Marin

Permanent Collection





Anxious to account for contemporary life, Impressionism favoured the representation of human figures in their daily surroundings and captured the “modern” man in his routine activities, both in cities and in the countryside.

Although they did not strive to render scrupulously the physiognomy, costume or habit, the Impressionists nevertheless accounted for the fashions and attitudes of their times. They achieved this through their keenness to consider the portrait as a snapshot of a person in his/her familiar settings, through their ability to renew the genre works from the double point of view of typology and topography and above all through their attention to the “daily metamorphosis of exterior things”, as Baudelaire put it.

With their aesthetic positions, the reality of men and women of the years between 1860 and 1880 and their clothes underwent an indisputable transfiguration.

Musée d’ Orsay
62, rue de Lille

9:30AM-6Pm except Monday, Thursdays until 9:45

M: Solferino

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