by Lucie Klysch
Henri Rousseau created a body of work before the beginning of the 20th century that may be far less simple than it first appears. He is best known for his naive jungle paintings. The childlike gracefulness inherent in his painting was for a long time the only quality attested to his works. Few artists have been more ridiculed during his lifetime than Rousseau.
Rousseau's most famous self-portrait was exhibited in 1890 under the title I Myself. Portrait-Landscape at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. Dominant on a neutral colored ground, Rousseau's silhouette stretches giantly and triumphantly in plain festive black. He looks with a serious expression. On the color palette he holds in his right hand are the names of his lovers Clémence and Josephine. To them he dedicated his will to paint. In this peculiar early work, Rousseau still seems to have been somewhat awkward. He does not succeed in painting the feet in the correct perspective. Clearly the traces of retouching can be seen. Thus the figure gives the impression of floating iconically in the center of the picture. Although, as a self-taught artist, he thinks highly of the artistic training of the academies, his thoroughly naive style speaks against everything that is considered typically academic in painting. In his self-portrait, the almost two-dimensional frontality and the contrasting finely worked out representational details are particularly striking. It is precisely this ambivalence that later becomes, probably less intentionally, his artistic trademark.
Clear references to current events are arranged in the background. Pushed back by the central figure in the middle of the picture, the peripheral figures and objects appear miniature. The abstractly colored flags allude to the groundbreaking World's Fair of 1889, and the Eiffel Tower, which had just been erected, is also representative of the beginning of the modern industrial age. The strange cloud formation, which dominates a good third of the picture, picks up on the shape of the beret and the color of the forehead. Again, the very fine and precise elaboration is considerable. Realism and symbolism seem to combine here.
In two ways, this painting is proof of Rousseau's tireless ambition. First, it is the presumption of an unknown artist to present himself in such a challenging pose representative of the painters' guild. On the other hand, it is the objects in the background that explicitly point to the invention of a new genre. The modern Eiffel Tower was anything but an academic motif; it was not until years later that Georges Seurat painted it and it became Robert Delaunay's main motif. The veduta, composed of several parts, is in its combination another personal confession of Rousseau and can also be read as a reference to his self-interpretation. In this painting, Rousseau presents himself as he liked to see himself. As a self-confident painter who has mastered his art. Rousseau's personality, art and desire for fame are cleverly illustrated in this self-portrait. The stubborn alternation of size and perspective creates a profound symbolic context of meaning. This makes him a celebrated modernist trailblazer today. What the Fauvists, Cubists and Futurists called a radical break with convention, Rousseau practiced quite naturally.
Henri Rousseau - Myself. Portrait Landscape
Oil on canvas, 1889-1890, 146 x 113 cm , National Gallery in Prague