Was Henri Rousseau’s Work Re-Discovered When One of His Paintings Was Purchased for Its Canvas Alone?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to paintings and painters and whether they are true or false.

PAINTING URBAN LEGEND: Pablo Picasso discovered the work of Henri Rousseau by purchasing one of his works that was being sold for the canvas, not the painting itself.

Henri Rousseau was a Post-Impressionist painter in France during the late 19th and early 20th Century who did not have very much success with his work most of his life.

His nickname was Le Douanier, which means “the customs officer,” which happened to be his main occupation.

A self-taught artist, Rousseau mostly drew scenes of the jungle.

His work had a unique, flat feel to it that was regarded at the time as being child-like.

Here’s a piece of his from 1905 (click to enlarge)…

rousseau-hungry-lion

During the early 20th Century, though, a new wave of artists were making the scene, people like the aforementioned Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

They viewed art quite a bit differently than most of the established art scene of the late 1890s/early 1900s, so in Rousseau, rather than seeing a childish painter, Picasso saw a non-conformist unsullied by academia, which was something that Picasso himself was rebelling from at the time (1908).

In addition, Picasso was interested in “primitive” artwork, art from Africa – Rousseau was also influenced by African art with his jungle work.

In any event, the tale of HOW Picasso came across Rousseau is quite amazing.

Rousseau had done two large paintings in 1895, one of his first wife and one of a Polish woman he knew, who APPEARS to be a bit of an unrequited love on Rousseau’s part…

Portrait of a Lady (his wife)

Portrait of a Woman (the Polish school teacher)

The paintings were on very large canvasses, over six feet tall!!

So when Picasso went shopping in the Père Soulier shop in 1908, he saw the head of the woman peeking out from a bunch of other canvasses. Picasso asked about the painting, and was told it cost five francs, not because of the painting itself, but because the canvas was so big the shopkeeper figured you just wash off the painting and then use the canvas!!!

Picasso, though, wanted the painting and actually threw a banquet to celebrate the hanging of the painting.

The Banquet Douanier, as it became known, is an interesting affair, for a couple of reasons.

1. Because of all the amount of alcohol imbibed at the party, getting an accurate representation of what exactly went on that night has been difficult

and

2. Exactly how much of the celebration of Rousseau was tongue-in-cheek? By the time the celebration came around, Rousseau was in his 60s, and was making his living through various odd jobs, including playing the violin.

So he was definitely a bit of a sad sack, so a number of attendees of the famous Banquet Douanier claimed that the whole routine was just to mock Rousseau, you know, like a sort of ironic celebration.

However, quite a number of OTHER attendees disagreed about the motivations behind the party, and really, besides Picasso, who threw the party, does it really matter why the OTHER people attended?

And Picasso seemed to genuinely admire Rousseau.

Picasso moved frequently throughout his life, but all throughout it, until his death in 1973 at the age of 91, Picasso brought Rousseau’s Portrait of a Woman with him.

Here you can see it in the background of a photograph of Picasso taken in 1932…

And here you can see Picasso from thirty years later with two pieces of Rousseau’s that he had purchased.

That certainly appears to be the treatment one would afford a painter that one honestly admired, doesn’t it?

Rousseau would die a couple of years later, in 1910, but he at least lived long enough to see his work admired by a new generation of French artists.

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Roland Penrose’s Picasso: His Life and Work and Dan Franck’s Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art for the information!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

2 Responses to “Was Henri Rousseau’s Work Re-Discovered When One of His Paintings Was Purchased for Its Canvas Alone?”

  1. Confusing typo: “Picasso, though, wanted the painting and actually through a banquet to celebrate the hanging of the painting.” Should be ‘threw a banquet’, right?

  2. Yep! Thanks, I’ll fix that.

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