Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau
Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope, 1898/1905
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Henri Rousseau
Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope, 1898/1905

The Hungry Lion Attacking an Antelope
Oil on canvas, 200 x 301 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

It was with this famous jungle painting that Rousseau made his breakthrough at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1905. The target of mockery and ridicule in the nineteenth century, at the start of the twentieth he became a revered artist of the avant-garde. Apollinaire, Delaunay, Léger, Braque and Picasso all visited him in his studio, and Wassily Kandinsky praised him in the Blauer Reiter almanac as the “father of grand realism”. A typical feature of Rousseau’s paintings is the tension between botanical objectivity and the aura of enigmatic fantasy. Rousseau had only second-hand knowledge of the world’s exotic regions. He modelled his animals and plants instead from magazines, photos and the dioramas in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. His wilderness is presented as a beautifully arranged herbarium: leaf upon leaf, one blade of grass beside the next. Rousseau’s jungle is a well-composed symphony in green, a meticulously painted collage of flora and fauna. At the very centre, with other animals looking on, we are witness to a life-and-death struggle.

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Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau

1844, Laval – 1910, Paris

The earliest known paintings by Rousseau, at that time employed by the Paris municipal customs service, are from 1877. In 1893 he retired in order to devote himself fully to painting. From 1886 onwards he exhibited regularly at the Salon des Indépendants and took part in numerous competitions. It was not until 1905, however, that one of his works – the painting Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope – was selected by a jury for the first time and its presentation was widely reported in the press. This painting was also the first work of Rousseau’s to enter the art market, thanks to the efforts of gallerist Ambroise Vollard. Through his friendships with the poet Alfred Jarry, the artists Delaunay and Picasso, and the group around Apollinaire, as well as his contacts to Gauguin, Redon, Seurat and Pissarro, he found a handful of loyal admirers and supporters of his art. Rousseau was wrongly classified as an exponent of naïve painting throughout his lifetime and beyond, and his contribution as an important forerunner of modernism was not recognized until long after his death.

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