Like many geniuses who were ahead of their era, Henri Rousseau did not know during his life, neither fame nor wealth. A talented artist, who worked until the age of 41 as an ordinary clerk in the Paris customs department, found the willpower to give up his usual way of life and devote himself completely to painting. The only thing that supported Rousseau in his hobby was an unshakable faith in his own talent, which allowed him to become one of the greatest masters of his era. Surprisingly, the desire to imitate the techniques of the past transferred the artist directly to the future - his creative manner will become very characteristic of many masters of the XX century. Russo’s “naive” art, keeping pace with impressionism, soon separated into a completely different school. The original style of the painter, replete with elements of phantasmagoria, was admired by Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay, giving Rousseau himself only minimal means of subsistence during his life.
Starting his career as an artist at the age of forty-one, Henri Russo was self-taught. Arriving from the provinces in Paris and settled in as a petty official, Rousseau painted everywhere: while on duty at work, taking advantage of the favor of his superiors, and at night at home. Poor, but patient, modest, but confident in his genius, he became one of the leading and most recognized masters of the artistic avant-garde, which was admired by progressive contemporaries and generations of descendants.
Once Rousseau himself wrote an autobiographical note for the book “Portraits of the Next Century” - “Born in Laval in 1844 in a family with desperate modest incomes, he was forced to devote himself to the wrong profession, which attracted him to his love of art.” True, the book never came out.
The father of a self-taught artist was Julien Russo - a hereditary tinsmith from a town in the west of France - Laval. And his mother is the daughter of an officer of the Great Army of Napoleon. Henri’s father desperately wanted to get rich, therefore, having bought a house on the outskirts of the city, he leaves his craft as a tinsmith and tries to establish a business of reselling various goods. But, alas, his work is burned out, and since then hopeless poverty has settled in the house of Russo.
Fortunately, despite the extreme need, the family of the future artist was able to send her only son to study first at school, and then at the Lyceum. Henri was an average student, although he managed to get a number of school awards, distinguishing himself in singing and arithmetic. These seemingly insignificant achievements are everywhere noted in his biography not because Rousseau became world famous artists, but because he also wrote an amazing waltz named after his first wife - “Clemence”.
Back in 1871, the young Russo got a permanent job at the customs of the Excise Department, which in the 19th century collected taxes from goods imported to Paris. Inspection of goods at the city gates is a boring and monotonous occupation, but it does not limit the inner freedom of the person performing it.
During one of the next shifts, a small clerk sets up an easel right in the courtyard of the department building, and begins to draw. Unfortunately, the paintings painted by Russo until 1877 did not survive. The exception is only one, depicting a battle scene against the backdrop of the local landscape.
Female images, as well as images of animals, occupied a huge place in the artist’s work. Two large female portraits, painted by Rousseau with a small gap, are very similar compositions. Both depict women in black standing full-length. The format of the works and the poses of the characters allow attributing the paintings to the genre of parade portraits. Perhaps both of them were made to order, although the identity of the models remained unknown.
The first canvas - “Portrait of a Woman” (alternative name “Portrait of Mrs. M.”) was created around 1895. It was this painting that was acquired at a very modest price in 1908 by another brilliant artist - Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was very enthusiastic about it. This work is also known as Jadwiga, although there is no evidence that the model name matches.
Once, the mother of the artist Robert Delaunay, succumbing to the entreaties of her son, decided to order a Russo painting. Her stories about an exotic trip to India inspired the Customs Officer to create a canvas designed in rich green tones typical of the tropical jungle. In the center of the picture we see the figure of a black-haired woman - a snake charmer, who is very reminiscent of an ancient mystical deity. Black snakes, as if mesmerized by the magical sounds of her pipes, slowly creep out from everywhere, and if at first glance they are barely distinguishable, then when the look gets used to a variegated variety and begins to distinguish details, you see them more and more. Amazingly, their movement on the canvas is felt almost physically. The eyes of the female figure, which are the only bright spot in the picture, add a mystical shade to the canvas,their tremendous attractive power is striking.
In 1910, Henri Russo creates his greatest masterpiece - the canvas "Dream", exhibited by him in the same year at the 26th Salon of Independents. All his friends and colleagues unanimously claim that the work is worthy of the best reviews. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire writes about her in one of his articles: “I think that this year no one dares to laugh. You can ask the artists - everyone is unanimous, everyone admires them, even this sofa in the style of Louis - Philippe, lost in a virgin forest. And they are right. ”
Apollinaire solemnly recites the ode he wrote for this evening: “We have gathered to honor you with wine, which pours Picasso. There is reason to drink, and we will drink and rejoice: “Long live Rousseau!” Around the table gathered: artists Georges Braque (1882 - 1963), Marie Lorensen and Andre Derain (1880 - 1954), writer Andre Salomon, poet Max Jacob (1876 - 1944) and two American women - the famous writer Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946) and Alicia Toklas. Wine flows like water, Rousseau takes the violin and plays the waltz that he once wrote for Clemence. Then he comes to Picasso and quietly says in his ear: "We are the two greatest artists of the era." Then Apollinaire gets up again and reads a poem telling about Rousseau’s trip to Mexico invented by him: “Do you remember, Rousseau, the Aztec landscape? Forests where pineapples and mangoes grew, Merry monkeys, watermelon pulp,Race warmed the emperor Maximilian? "Your paintings come from Mexico, Where the burning sun and the riot of nature." An artist who has never been to this country does not even try to object, because today is the long-awaited day of his triumph.
Later, a friend of Picasso, Fernanda Olivier will argue that the festive reception in Bateau Lavoir was a joke, a hoax. However, Andre Salomon writes in his memoirs: "In Bato Lavoir, we had only one task - we wanted to give Rousseau the holiday he deserved." This technique in Bato Lavoir was one of the key moments in the history of the development of modern painting: it was there that two generations of artists met, thanks to whom new art was born.