Wednesday 11 August 2010

Henri Rousseau's jungle paintings

I'm returning to my mini-theme of portraiture by a roundabout route. In my next post I'll put up some portraits by the naive painter Henri Rousseau (1844–1910); but first I'm posting a different aspect of his work. Rousseau is far better known for some of the most popular and memorable paintings of the modern era. He is celebrated for his visionary jungle paintings that captivate the viewer with the lushness of their plant and animal life painted with incredible detail and precision. Extraordinarily the artist never saw the tropical scenes he brought so much to life, as he never left France. His exotic jungle paintings are the fantasies of a city dweller, constructed from visits to the zoo and botanical gardens, from postcards, books and from Rousseau’s vivid imagination. These jungles have intrigued people for decades, offering a dream of escape from humdrum reality to a savage and yet enchanting realm.

Rousseau’s unique vision was celebrated by his modernist contemporaries like Pablo Picasso and the surrealists René Magritte and Max Ernst, who saw his work as opening up new realms of artistic possibility. They were particularly fascinated by his bold, primitive style and the dream-like nature of his paintings. For a customs official who was self-taught and only took up painting full-time in retirement, this was an extraordinary accomplishment.

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