Don’t Miss: Henri Rousseau and Paula Modersohn-Becker Exhibits in Paris

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Don’t Miss: Henri Rousseau and Paula Modersohn-Becker Exhibits in Paris
Two excellent retrospectives this summer – Henri Rousseau at the Musée d’Orsay and Paula  Modersohn-Becker at the Musée de l’art moderne de la ville de Paris — offer the opportunity to study two artists whose brief careers overlapped and converged in Paris. In 1906 Modersohn-Becker met Rousseau through the German sculptor Bernard Hoetger. At the time, Rousseau had only painted seriously for the last twenty years, as he started his career after age 40; Modersohn-Becker, thirty-two years his junior, had devoted herself to art for the last ten. Sadly, her life ended the next year, on November 20, 1907. Rousseau lived until September 2, 1910. In the exhibition Henri Rousseau: Archaic Candour, we see their paintings hanging side by side, like kindred spirits. They both simplified forms, flattened figures and firmly delineated contours in a deliberately anti-classical fashion. The Rousseau curators Beatrice Avanzi and Claire Bernardi call this tendency “archaic,” because it seems to hark back to pre-classical antiquity and late medieval “primitifs” which the both artists studied in their temple of art, the Louvre. Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born in Laval on May 21, 1844 to a family of modest means. His father dealt in metals and hardware until he suffered reverses which resulted in selling the family’s comfortable home.  Henri became a boarding student at his high school when the family moved to another town (which may account for his individualism and resourcefulness). After high school, Rousseau briefly worked for a lawyer and studied law.  Losing interest, he joined the army in 1863, served for four years, and then, after his father died in 1868, settled in Paris with his mother and entered civil service.  In 1871, he was promoted to tax collector of goods entering Paris (hence the nickname “le Douanier,” customs officer). By then he had been married to Clémence Boitard, the landlord’s 15 year old daughter, for three years. The couple had six children, but only two survived to adolescence and only one, Julie, to adulthood. In 1888, Clémence died at age 35. Ten years later he married Josephine Noury. Rousseau started to paint on Sundays in his early 40s and retired at 49 in order to paint full-time. He was able to submit his work to the unjuried Salon des Indépendants in 1886 (two years after this salon made its debut). The cost for exhibiting was only 25 francs. Post-Impressionists Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Odilon Redon also exhibited in this newly-established unrestricted Salon, wherein Rousseau’s bold naïve style attracted attention. According to the poet/art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, Gauguin loved the Douanier’s use of black, which (the art critic claimed) came from Rousseau’s close examination of Paolo Uccello. Apollinaire’s friend and fellow poet/critic André Salmon wrote in his book Henri Rousseau (1961) that he introduced the Dounaier to the Louvre and would often meet him by chance as he wandered through the galleries. “What interests you today?” Salmon would ask. Rousseau would reply: “One can’t remember all their names, Albert. There are so many.” (Salmon duly noted that the artist failed to remember his friend’s name as well.) At the Louvre, Rousseau studied the smooth blended surfaces achieved by the great academic masters. He admired their precision and clarity. He once said to Picasso: “You and I are the most important artists of our time: you in the Egyptian style and I in the modern.” And yet, the older man preferred traditional painters, like late-nineteenth century artists Jean-Léon Gérome and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, to the true “moderns,” like Picasso, Matisse and André Derain – who sincerely adored Rousseau’s ability to “really paint” (the artist-writer Michel Georges Michel recollected in his book From Renoir to Picasso, 1954).
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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Purchase College in Westchester, New York. She has recently published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art."