With the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition “Le Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Candor” having opened this week, we turn back to the February 15, 1942, issue of ARTnews, in which the American Cubist painter Max Weber remembered his friend Henri Rousseau. (The French painter died in 1910, at age 66.) Written on the occasion a traveling Rousseau retrospective that stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Weber recalled meeting Rousseau and being almost immediately enamored of his art. Weber’s article follows in full below.
“Rousseau as I Knew Him”
By Max Weber
Reminiscences upon a Retrospective
As I was leaving the Autumn Salon on a beautiful Paris Sunday afternoon in the middle of October, 1907, I was invited to join a group of friends who were on their way to Mme. Delaunay’s salon. This charming cultured French woman was the mother of Robert Delaunay, one of the first Post-Impressionist painters in Paris. Mme. Delaunay was one of the first admirers and patrons of Henri Rousseau and her home was open for occasional gatherings of the elite and progressive in the world of art.
After an hour of heated but pleasant discussion on matters of art, a high-pitched male voice was heard in the corridor among other voices of new arrivals. A number of people in the reception room recognized it as the voice of Henri Rousseau. A moment later a round-shouldered genial old man, small of stature with a smiling face and bright eyes, carrying a cane, entered the room. He was warmly received and one could see that he was pleased to find himself among so many friends and admirers. He seemed to have brought with him the balm of the late hour of that glorious autumnal day. He, too, came from the Autumn Salon, and was very happy to have seen his pictures hung side by side with the work of other artists. What if he had known that one of those pictures in that group was destined to hang in the Louvre among the masters of all time?
Just before this pleasant party broke up, I was introduced to Rousseau. As the guests were about to leave he asked me where I lived. I told him that I lived in the quartier of Montparnasse. He told me that he too lived in that quarter and suggested that we go home together. I was exceedingly pleased, and was at once impressed by his paternal and informal manner. As we walked along I began to wonder whether this was Paris, for his conversation was picturesque and unsophisticated and not at all Parisian.
We parted on the square of the Gare Montparnasse, and he invited me to come to see him and his work. A week later I called on him. On my way home after this first visit, which I shall never forget as long as I live, I felt that I had been favored by the gods to meet one of the most inspiring and precious personalities in all of Paris: a personality that was well for a young painter to learn to understand and emulate. “Here,” I said to myself, “is a man, an artist, a poet whose friendship and advise I must cultivate and cherish.”
Rousseau stood aloof from studio, gallery, and salon harangue, away from the speculation of the Parisian art exchange, free from its collectors and conniving impresarios and their appraisal. By a sacred sense of privacy he was shielded from the snobbery, pretense, and sophistication which was rife in the art circles of the time. Though flagrantly neglected and impoverished, this humble but wise man lived and worked in spiritual isolation and intellectual serenity.
Staunch believers in and lovers of his art were few in those days, and even among his friends the praise and comment was lukewarm and patronizing. At times it was mildly derisive and even satirical, and now and then a French bon mot accompanied by a mimicking gesture behind his back reached my ear and caught my eye. But the old simple maxim “who laughs last laughs best,” was never more true than in this instance. Names of some of Rousseau’s rebel contemporaries have long been forgotten, and fate in its wondrous and mysterious way may yet place Rousseau’s name above the most outstanding that have come up since Cezanne, Renoir, Seurat, Lautrec, and the like.
How trivial and stale are some of the “creations” of that day in the light of Rousseau’s eloquence, clarity, social and spiritual intimacy! One needs no art lexicons in the presence of a picture by Rousseau. It does not shock, it does not baffle. It defines itself in its own pure and simple language of art. There are no perplexing geometric problems to solve, nor is it necessary to understand palmistry or spiritualism to arrive at the meaning of a picture by Rousseau. Nor does one find a thousand and one plastic intricacies or complications to unravel. In many respects his art is abstract and even Surrealist. His Surrealism is the sort that springs from a healthy poetic vision or dream. It is transcendent, radiant, full of love and joy. It is a flower from the Garden of Eden. It is the extreme opposite of the abysmal and negative. I imagine that Rousseau tapped the same spiritual wells that William Blake did when he wrote his Songs of Innocence, and Songs of Experience. And is not Rousseau’s poem Yadwigha much like Blake’s poem Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven?
Claiming no finds, straining for no innovations or inventions, uninterrupted by periods of research, experiments, he nevertheless gave to the world a most unique reassuring, beautiful, and truthful art. There is nothing chameleon about him. In one steady stream over a period of about thirty years he produced masterpiece after masterpiece. Through his unshaken faith, childlike charm, philosophic maturity, through his love of nature and humanity he found himself. He himself was the find. Here today he stands like a prophet and symbol.