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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Henri Rousseau

There are many ways to label or classify artists, good, bad, or indifferent (not the artist, the labels). They are usually be earmarked by style, or by media, or by subject matter, etc. Perhaps the most delicate classification refers to the degree in which the artist is self-taught. It would seem that only folk artists are indifferent to this matter, perhaps even taking pride in their lack of professional training. For the most part however, those without much academic training are the most sensitive to distinctions drawn according to diplomas and degrees. And speaking of degrees, there are, of course, degrees to which artists are self-taught. Those at either end of the spectrum seem to have it easiest.  Today, because art training is so easy to come by, the completely self-trained artist is a rarity. But when they occur, we've traditionally called them "naive" and we tend to excuse them from most of that which is expected of all other artists. In fact, we admire them for their virginal purity. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those artists whose academic credentials are so intimidating they can flaunt the rules and no one dares raise an eyebrow.

Self-Portrait, 1890, Henri Rousseau

Perhaps the best-loved of all naive artist was the French painter, Henri Rousseau. Born in 1844, in his youth he lived and traveled in Mexico, playing in a military band. Later, returning to Paris, he married, started a family, and settled down with a routine job in a customs house. But the wilds of Mexico had left an indelible impression. He began to paint that which was within him. His style we would call primitive. He was as untrained as was possible, given the times in which he lived. He had no thought of selling his work or making a name for himself. However, with his trademark painter's smock and black beret, he seems to have very much relished the "image" of the artist. His paintings of snarling tigers, peaceful lions, sleeping Arabs, and fanciful jungle vegetation, are charming and decorative, strong in what seems to have been an instinctive sense of color and good compositional design. His work is often compared favorably with that of Paul Gauguin's Tahitian paintings, though Gauguin's primitive style was studied, rather than natural.

Exotic Landscape, 1908,
Henri Rousseau

Perhaps the most exceptional thing about Rousseau's work was the fact that each was a personal expression of his nostalgia for his exciting glory days in the Mexican wilderness. He cared little for the fact he could not draw from nature and though he admired the work of Delacroix and Gericault, he perhaps considered himself to old to emulate them or burden himself with their academic accuracy. His strength as an artist was his fun-loving, totally idealistic freedom to express that which he loved most without regard for the niceties of the natural over the idealistic.

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