Today is the birthday (1844) of Henri Julien Félix Rousseau, French post-impressionist painter, sometimes known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), a slightly off-hand joke concerning his day job as an import tax collector. He started painting seriously in his early forties but was ridiculed during his lifetime by critics. He was not fully recognized as a self-taught genius until after his death when his work exerted an enormous influence on several generations of artists.
Rousseau was born in Laval (in northwest France near Brittany), in 1844, son of plumber. He attended secondary school in Laval first as a day student, and then as a boarder after his father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. After school, he worked for a lawyer and studied law, but after a short stint tired of the work and joined the army. He served for 4 years, starting in 1863, but on his father’s death, he moved to Paris to support his widowed mother as a government employee. In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord’s 15-year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). In 1871, he was appointed as a collector of the octroi of Paris, collecting taxes on goods entering Paris. His wife died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898.
From 1886, he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Indépendants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review when the young artist Félix Vallotton wrote: “His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it’s the alpha and omega of painting.” In 1893, Rousseau moved to a studio in Montparnasse where he lived and worked until his death in 1910. In 1897, he produced one of his most famous paintings, La Bohémienne endormie (The Sleeping Gypsy).
In 1905, Rousseau’s large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse, and by a group now generally known as Les Fauves.
After Rousseau’s retirement in 1893, he supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and casual work such as playing a violin in the streets. He also worked briefly at Le petit journal, where he produced a number of its covers. Rousseau exhibited his final painting, The Dream, in March 1910, at the Salon des Independants.
In the same month Rousseau cut his leg and the wound became infected, which he ignored. In August he was admitted to the Necker Hospital in Paris, where his son had died, and was found to have gangrene in his leg. After an operation, he died from a blood clot on September 2, 1910.
At his funeral, seven friends stood at his grave: the painters Paul Signac and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, the artist couple Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk, the sculptor Brâncuși, Rousseau’s landlord Armand Queval, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote the epitaph Brâncuși put on the tombstone (translated here):
We salute you
Gentile Rousseau you can hear us
Delaunay his wife Monsieur Queval and myself
Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light of truth
Painting as you once did my portrait
Facing the stars
Here is a small gallery of some of my favorites. I’m not particularly taken with his usual flat representation of the human figure, but I do like his portrayal of foliage, his colors, and his general composition. De gustibus . . . I am not (nor want to be) an art historian.
Figuring out a recipe du jour is dead simple because of a famous event towards the end of Rousseau’s life. In 1908 Pablo Picasso, at the time an up and coming star, came across a painting by Rousseau (Portrait of a Woman) being sold in a junk shop cheaply as a canvas to be painted over. He was moved by the artistry, bought the painting, sought out the artist, and held a half serious, half burlesque banquet in his studio at Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau’s honor. “Le Banquet Rousseau,” as it has come to be known is now legendary. US poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin, wrote that it “was neither an orgiastic occasion nor even an opulent one. Its subsequent fame grew from the fact that it was a colorful happening within a revolutionary art movement at a point of that movement’s earliest success, and from the fact that it was attended by individuals whose separate influences radiated like spokes of creative light across the art world for generations.” Guests at the banquet included, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger, Constantin Brâncuși, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, and Leo and Gertrude Stein.
The banquet was designed to be in two stages: first a formal dinner for 30 special guests, and second a general party for anyone who wanted to attend. Unfortunately, Picasso mixed up his dates and had ordered catered food (from a cheap local bistro) for the formal dinner for the wrong night. Consequently there was a scramble to provide dinner, and French artist’s model Fernande Olivier who shared the apartment with Picasso, made a big batch of riz à la valencienne — i.e. the French idea of paella — while Gertrude Stein raced around Montmatre in search of cheeses, sardines, bread and so forth as hors d’ouevres.
You can read all about the events of the banquet elsewhere. There are numerous stories and vignettes recounted by those present. Rousseau arrived at 8 pm when the guests (who had been drinking since 5 pm) were, let’s say, in jovial spirits. He was wearing his artist’s beret with a cane in one hand and his violin in the other. An odd sight: the short, white-haired, 64 year old painter greeted by 20-something artists and poets living in the heart of Bohemia, who would all go on to be world famous, but at the time were just beginning to be noticed. All of them ultimately drew inspiration, in one way or another, from Rousseau’s work. Opinion is sharply divided as to whether the attendees (and Picasso himself) were truly honoring Rousseau or mocking him. Probably a bit of both at the time. But in death Rousseau had the last laugh: the painting that Picasso bought for 5 francs and displayed that night is now valued at $100 million.
Paella varies considerably around the world and is rarely cooked as they make it in Valencia. You’ll find one traditional recipe of mine here, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/cesare-borgia/ Throughout Spain, France, and Italy people prepare a variety of dishes of saffron rice with fish, meat, and vegetables which they think of as “Spanish rice”, and, of course, I have no idea what actually went into the dish at Rousseau’s banquet. But the typical Parisian riz à la valenciennes, calls for chicken, mussels, chorizo, and shrimp, with bell peppers and onions; a far cry from the rabbit, beans, and snails in Valencian paella. It is essential to have a wide, deep skillet to prepare this dish, preferably a paella pan. A wood fire won’t hurt either, but a gas stove will do.
Riz à la Valenciennes
1 small chicken, cut in 12 pieces
½ L/1 pint unshelled fresh mussels, fully scrubbed and debearded
160 ml/⅔ cup dry white wine
6-8 large shrimp, raw
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
100 g/3½ oz. chorizo, finely sliced
250 gm/2 cups short-grain rice
800 ml/ 3½ cups chicken broth
½ tsp powdered saffron
salt and freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a skillet and sauté the chicken pieces until they are golden on all sides. Because they are small, this process will ensure that they are almost, but not entirely, cooked through. Transfer the chicken pieces to a bowl with their juices and set aside.
Heat half the white wine in a large pot. Add the mussels, cover and cook over high heat until the mussels are just open. Discard any mussels that do not open, and transfer the mussels to a bowl with their juices (strained through muslin) and set aside.
Sauté the shrimp in a little olive oil until they turn pink. Set aside.
Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons olive over medium heat in a large skillet or paella pan. Add the onions and bell pepper and sauté until soft. Add the chorizo slices and cook for 5 minutes more. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the rice and sauté an additional 3 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the remaining white wine and allow it to evaporate completely. Add the broth and saffron, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Bring the broth to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down as low as possible. Let the rice to cook for about 15 minutes, undisturbed. Remove the cover and check the rice. It should be barely cooked. If need be cook a little longer. When the rice is almost ready, arrange the chicken pieces, mussels and shrimp on top of the rice. Add their juices to the skillet. Cover and allow to cook over low heat for 5 minutes more.
Uncover, garnish with the fresh parsley, and serve in the skillet.