Paris

Montparnasse by Chris Hall

Moise Kisling, Paquerette, and Pablo Picasso at Cafe la Rotonde, 1916.  Photo by Jean Cocteau.

Moise Kisling, Paquerette, and Pablo Picasso at Cafe la Rotonde, 1916.  Photo by Jean Cocteau.

"I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away:  this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colours, which spontaneously and astutely merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines.  That could not be seen in my town.  The sun of Art then shone only on Paris."  Marc Chagall

Montparnasse is an area of Paris, France, on the left bank of the river Seine.  During the 1920's and 1930's, is was widely considered to be the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe, if not the world.  Staring in about 1910, artists began to migrate to Paris in order to participate in Paris' art scene, which was then centered in the Montmarte district (home to  Emile Zola, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, the Impressionists, and the 19th century avante-garde).  Finding the area gentrified, filled with Dandyism (the 19th century version of Hipsterism), and too expensive to live in, they began to move to Montparnasse.  Montparnasse was a gritty, socially downtrodden area of Paris, filled with tough talking immigrants.  Penniless painters, sculptures, writers, poets, and composers converged on the area for its cheap rent.  They often lived without heat and running water, selling their work for a few francs just to buy food.  They came from around the globe, converging on the City of Lights like moths to a flame, from Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, Central and South America, and as far away as Japan.  Notable residents included Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Erik Satie, Marc Chagall, Nina Hamnett, Max Jacob, Chaim Soutine, Georges Braque, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Amedeo Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, Moise Kisling, Jean Cocteau, Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Tsuguharu Foujita, Marie Vassilieff, Alberto Giacometti, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Pascin, Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett, Joan Miro, and Hilaire Hiler.

By the 1920's and 1930's, Montparnasse was a thriving artist community and the heart of intellectual life in Paris.  This time, known as les Années Folles (the Crazy Years), almost rivaled Weimar Berlin's culture of excess and depravity.  Max Jacob said he came to Montparnasse to “sin disgracefully.”  The cafes and bars of Montparnasse were meeting places where new ideas were hatched.  It was a fertile crucible for the early Modern avante-garde movements.  During les  Années Folles, starving artists could occupy a tale all evening in one of Montparnasse's cafes and bars for only a little money.  If they fell asleep, the waiters were often instructed not to wake them up.  Arguments fueled by intellect and alcohol were common, and the police were rarely summoned.  If an artist couldn't pay a bill, some people, such as La Rotonde's proprietor, Victor Libion, would accept a drawing as collateral, holding it until the artist could pay.  There were times where the walls of the cafes were littered with art that make curators of today's great museums drool with envy.  But the good times could not last forever.  By the eve of World War II, most of Montparnasse's artists and intellectual's fled the country, many of them resettling in New York City, in the United States.  Montparnasse never regained its former glory.  Since that time, New York has been, arguably, the cultural capital of the world.

Pablo Picasso Part One by Chris Hall

“That fucking Picasso . . . He's done everything!”  Jackson Pollock

“To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.”  Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) was a Spanish artist, who spent most of his adult life in France.  He generally regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century.  Picasso's earlier career is marked by his jumping from one avant-garde style to another, from Post-Impressionist and Symbolist work, to his Blue and Rose periods, Proto-Cubist Primitive work, Analytical and Synthetic Cubism, Neoclassic works, and then to Expressionistic Surrealist work.  

“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”  Pablo Picasso

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  Pablo Picasso

Post Impressionist Period

The son of an art teacher, Picasso began studying art in the academic tradition at age 13.  At that age, Picasso already showed signs of great things to come.  In 1900, Picasso left Spain with his best friend Carlos Casagemas, to work in the art capital of Europe, the Montparnasse district of Paris, France.  Picasso lived in abject poverty and desperate circumstances with his roommate, the poet Max Jacob.  Not much of Picasso's earliest work survives, as Picasso reportedly burned a lot of this work for warmth when he first moved to France.  

“Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”  Pablo Picasso

The Blue Period

In 1901, Picasso's best friend Carlos Casagemas committed suicide over the unrequited love of Germaine Pichot.  Picasso's own depression following the suicide, the guilt of dating Germaine Pichot after his death, along with his poverty, would lead to the works of the Blue Period.  Earlier, Picasso's art was starting to attract attention, but just when people were getting acclimated to his work, he abruptly changed style to the Blue Period.  The subject matter of the Blue Period included starving mothers with children, beggars, and prostitutes.  The public found this work too depressing, and it did not sell, thus continuing the cycle of poverty.  

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”  Pablo Picasso

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”  Pablo Picasso

The Rose Period

In 1904, as Picasso's depression lifted, perhaps because of his new relationship with the bohemian artist and model Fernande Olivier.  Olivier was frequently a model for Picasso in what would become known as the Rose Period.  His colors and subject matter lightened considerably, as he began to paint circus people, acrobats, and harlequins in cheerful orange and pinks tones.  Circus people were still considered societal outcasts, but they were less taboo than his depictions of poverty in the Blue Period.  During this time, Picasso also met the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein, who began collecting his work.  At one of their parties, he also met Henri Matisse for the first time, who would become his lifelong friend and rival.  

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”  Pablo Picasso

“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”  Pablo Picasso

Proto-Cubist Work

In 1906, Picasso began to find inspiration in African sculpture and masks.  Parisians were being exposed to it for the first time as a result of French colonial expansion into Sub-Saharan Africa.  During this time Picasso was also influenced by Iberian sculpture and art from Oceania.  These new influences would culminate into Picasso's breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).   Picasso's Proto-Cubist work would easily transition itself to his next painting phase, Analytical Cubism.

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”  Pablo Picasso

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”  Pablo Picasso

Analytic Cubism

Picasso, with Georges Braque, is credited with the invention of Cubism.  The first phase, Analytic Cubism, began in 1909.  In Analytical Cubism, Picasso and Braque (and later many others) dissected and analyzed objects in terms of their shapes.  The broken up shapes were reassembled into abstract compositions, often painted in monochrome brownish and neutral colors.  Also, instead of the subject being depicted from one viewpoint, Analytical Cubism shows the subject from many viewpoints at the same time.  During this time, Picasso and company were notorious for their wild, bohemian lifestyle.  Picasso's friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, was arrested on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911.  Picasso was also brought in, but both were later exonerated.  

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”  Pablo Picasso

Synthetic Cubism

Picasso's Cubist innovations had given him some new fortune and fame.  In 1912, Picasso left Olivier for a new girl, Marcelle Humbert, who he called Eva Gouel. He had fallen madly in love with Eva, and would declare his love for her in the title of some of paintings.  Nevertheless, Picasso still managed to have an affair with another woman, Gaby Lespinasse, though he was devastated when Eva died of tuberculosis in 1915, age, 30.  As a Spanish citizen, Picasso was not expected to fight for France during the First World War.  He used this time to further develop his Cubist style, which became known as Synthetic Cubism.  Picasso created Synthetic Cubism in 1912.  Synthetic Cubism reintroduced color into Picasso's palette.  Through Synthetic Cubism, Picasso also gave the world another innovation, the collage and assemblage, which would have far reaching implications for Modern Art.  

“Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life, a dichotomy in which you hate what you do so you can have pleasure in your spare time. Look for a situation in which your work will give you as much happiness as your spare time.”  Pablo Picasso

Neoclassic Works

In the summer of 1918, Picasso married the ballerina, Olga Khoklova, who he had met the year before in Rome, while designing a set for a ballet.  In the fall of 1918, the First World War ended.  Both of these things would have a calming effect on Picasso's art.  This era in Picasso's oeuvre  would become known as his Neoclassical Period.  The calmness of Picasso's work during this time, however, soon began to mask Picasso's troubled marriage.  Olga was all class and high society, while Picasso had more bohemian interests and pursuits.   Nevertheless, they had a child together, Paulo, born 1921.  Picasso's marriage to Olga would collapse in 1927, when he took the younger Marie-Thérèse Walter as his mistress.  Picasso refused to divorce Olga in order to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, as was French law, and the two would remain separated until her death in 1955.

Marc Chagall by Chris Hall

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985) was a Russian-French artist and a pioneer of modernism.  Chagall was born near Vitebsk, Russian Empire (present day Belarus) in a poor Hasidic Jewish family.  Memories of his life growing up in Vitbsk would color much of future art.  Between 1906 and 1910, Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg, the political and cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  He frequently visited his home, Vitebsk, where he meet his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.  In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me."  Completing his studies, in 1910, the ambitious Chagall moved on to Paris.  

In Paris he created his own style of modern art based on his childhood experience of Eastern European Jewish folk culture.  The Paris avant-garde was dominated by cubism at the time, and many viewed Chagall's colorful, dreamlike paintings as a curiosity.  In 1914, a Berlin art dealer, however, found promise in Chagall's paintings, and invited him back to Berlin to exhibit there.  Chagall accepted the invitation, thinking he would pass through Berlin on his way Vitebsk, where he intended to marry Bella.  His plan was to stay just long enough for the exhibition and the wedding, and then return to Paris, but World War I intervened, and the Russian borders closed.  Chagall spent the war years in Belarus and in 1915 married his beloved Bella.  

When the Russian Revolution started in 1917, Chagall found himself in a dangerous situation, but also one with opportunity. As an artist, Chagall was respected in Russia, and he accepted a job to be Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk.  This would result in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College.  Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of diversity at his school, with artists working in a variety of different styles.  This fell apart, however, when several key faculty members began pushing Suprematist art, a minimalist aesthetic focusing on squares and circles, disapproving Chagall's “bourgeois individualism.”  Chagall resigned his post and moved to Moscow to work as a stage designer.  Moscow was not a good place to be during this time, as famine hit the city hard after the war.  When the Russian borders finally opened back up, Chagall, with Bella by his side, was determined to move back to Paris. 

Chagall moved back to the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1923.  On his way back to France he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. With all of his earliest work now gone, Chagall tried to recreate new ones from his memories of the past.  Paris between the wars was modernism's “golden age,” with the Montparnasse district being ground zero for the world's intellectual elite.  In this Parisian crucible, Chagall synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism to create his own unique style.  He had some success abroad, with his first show in the United States, featuring about 100 works, in 1926.  He finally began to receive some attention in France, when in 1927 art critic Maurice Raynal included him in his book, Modern French Painters.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.  Anti-Semitic laws were being passed and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established.  Almost immediately, the Nazis began to a campaign against Modern Art.  Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and Surrealist, along with anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or just plain difficult to understand was targeted for removal, to be replaced by more accessible, realist work, especially heavy with German and patriotic themes.  Chagall was declared an Entartete Kunst, a “Degenerate Artist,” and his work was included in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, 1937.

When Germany invaded France, the Chagalls naively moved to the unoccupied south, in Vichy France.  They were unaware that the Vichy government was collaborating with the Germans to send French Jews to German concentration camps.  Chagall woke up to reality in October of 1940, when the Vichy government, under pressure from the Nazis, began to approve anti-Semetic laws, and French Jews were removed from public and academic positions.  By then, however, they were trapped.  America could be their only refuge, but they could not afford the ticket to New York, let alone the large bond that each immigrant had to pay upon entry to ensure that they would not be burden on the state.

Some circles in America, however, were sympathetic to the situation in France.  France had capitulated quickly, faster than Poland only the year before.  Paris was thought to be the center of civilization, and many were astonished to see it fall into Hitler's hands.  Chagall was not the only Russian or Jewish artist trapped in France; Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, and Max Beckmann all sought to escape.  With help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was added to a list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate.  A rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas was started.  Chagall was one of over 2,000 people rescued by this operation and together with his family, he left France in May of 1941, when it was almost too late.

Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize in the United States in 1939, but he had no idea what kind of reception he would have stepping foot in America for the first time.  He found out that he was somewhat famous in the art world, and that his work was more appreciated in the United States than in France.  Chagall felt uncomfortable in his new role as artist-celebrity, in a foreign country where he could not even speak the language.  He felt lost at first, exiled in a strange place and time.  He spent a lot of time in Jewish communities, especially the Lower East Side, where he found familiar food and was able to read the newspapers printed in Yiddish.  Soon, however, he found that New York was full of artists, writers, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions.  For the first time in his life, Chagall began to express interest in current events, and started painting the Crucifixion and scenes of war.  When he learned that the Germans had destroyed Vitebsk, the town where he was raised, he became greatly distressed.  He had also learned about the Nazi concentration camps.  During a speech in February 1944, he summed up his feelings:

Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a "stupid nation." He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of "Christianity" in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.

On September 2nd, 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife, Bella, due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortages of medicine.  Chagall's heart was broken, and he stopped painting for many months, and when he did resume painting, his first pictures were all concerned with preserving Bella's memory.  Chagall tried to fight bitter feelings.  He considered the possibility that their exile from Europe may have sapped her will to live, and that her death was just one of the millions of Jewish deaths that Germany was responsible for.  A few months after the Allies succeeded in liberating Paris from the Nazi occupation, Chagall wrote a letter “To the Paris Artists,” which was published in a Paris weekly paper.  In it he writes:

In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.

By 1946, Chagall's art was becoming more widely recognized.  The Museum of Modern Art gave Chagall a retrospective, will work culled from his 40 year career as an artist.  America had welcomed Chagall with open arms, but France was his real home, and he began making plans to return to Paris at the first practical opportunity.  The Europe he returned to was a very different place from what he had left behind.  Paris was no longer the center of the art world; thanks in part to the influx of European immigrants during the war, New York was now the art capital.  But perhaps the most disturbing to Chagall was the fate of Vitebsk, his hometown in Belarus.  Vitebsk always had a sizable Jewish population.  According to the Russian census of 1897, out of the total 65,900 population, Jews accounted for 34,400, roughly 52%.  By the Second World War, Vitebsk's population had swelled to 240,000.  When the Nazis occupied the city in July 1941, they quickly established a Jewish ghetto, and from the 8th of October to the 11th, they massacred all of Vitbsk's Jewish inhabitants.  Later, much of  the city was obliterated in the ensuing battles between the Germans and the Red Army soldiers.  Of Vitebsk's 240,000 pre-war population, only 118 survived.  All Chagall had left of his past were his memories and his paintings. 

Chagall chose to retreat from Parisian public life and settled in the Cote d' Azur, south of France.  Matisse and Picasso also lived nearby.  Although they were close in proximity to each other, and they sometimes collaborated, their work was different enough that they viewed each other as rivals.  They never became long-term friends.  Picasso, however, did respect Chagall's work.  Sometime in the 1950's, he said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

Chagall's post-war years were fruitful.  Through his daughter, Ida, he met Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background.  She became his secretary, but after a few months agreed to stay only if Chagall would marry her.  The marriage took place in July of 1952.  Chagall's art practice also expanded to include sculpture and ceramics, as well as many large scale, public commissions for murals, stained glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries.

In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th century building and national monument.  Andre Malraux, France's Minister of Culture, wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist.  This choice would become a public controversy, as many disliked the idea of having the ceiling of the historic building painted by a modern artist, while the xenophobes objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument.  Magazines published condescending articles about Chagall.  Chagall commented to one writer that:

They really had it in for me... It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen... work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

Despite the scathing criticism, the 77 year old Chagall continued to work on the project, which took him a year to complete.  The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet and required 440 pounds of paint.  The work paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, and Ravel.  Chagall was pleased with the work, and when it was unveiled in 1964, he felt vindicated when the press declared the new work to a great contribution to French culture.  Chagall had finally won over France.

Chagall would continue to paint until his death in 1985, age 97.  He was the last survivor of the first generation of European avante-garde artists, outliving Picasso, Matisse, and Miro.  The subjects that interested him most continued to be his memories of Vitebsk, musicians, lovers, the circus, Biblical subjects, and Jewish themes, always a colorful celebration of life and a defiant stance against the tragedies of the 20th century.  Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes that Chagall was:

a pioneer of modern art and one of its greatest figurative painters... On his canvases we read the triumph of modernism, the breakthrough in art to an expression of inner life that ... is one of the last century's signal legacies. At the same time Chagall was personally swept up in the horrors of European history between 1914 and 1945: world wars, revolution, ethnic persecution, the murder and exile of millions. In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy into images at once immediate, simple, and symbolic to which everyone could respond.

In his own way, then, it could be argued that Chagall was just as effective at combating darkness as some of the more politically motivated artists of his time.

Marc Chagall's The Falling Angel (1923 - 1947) by Chris Hall

Marc Chagall returned to Europe in 1946, arriving in Paris.  He and his beloved wife, Bella, fled from the Nazis in 1940 and found themselves in exile in New York City.  Bella died while in the United States, in 1944.  Now, alone in Paris, and with the burden of recent history on his mind, he felt he could at last finish his masterwork, The Falling Angel, which he had been working on for nearly 25 years.  Compared with most of Chagall's oeuvre, which tends toward the romantic and fantastical, The Falling Angel is a relatively dark piece.  Chagall's biographer would describe the painting as an “allegory of an age of terror.”

Chagall began working on the painting shortly after he left Moscow for the Montparnasse district of Paris, in 1923.  It combines Biblical and Torah lore with images taken from modern life and Chagall's own personal symbolism.  The Falling Angel would summarize all of Chagall's experiences he had lived through up to that point in his life.  Chagall had managed to get through the hardships of the Russian Revolution without too much trouble.  In a 1934 photograph of the unfinished work, the tone of the painting is much lighter.  There is a nice picket fence separating the viewer from the scene, and the falling angel resembles a youthful acrobat in a circus performance.  But the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and his wife's death while in exile in the United States, had affected him deeply.  

As war seemed immanent, the work began to take on a foreboding and ominous tone.  The boyish acrobat became a flaming, falling angel, the figure of a man protecting the Torah and man with a cane losing his balance was added.  The grandfather clock, floating as if in the middle of a tornado, suggests that these are troubling times.  The painting depicts a dark world, overturned and shattered, it's space is a topsy-turvy and uncertain place.  Our vantage point—hovering over the village at the picture's center—suggests that we too are falling.  But all is not lost; Chagall does provide refuge from the storm.  A candle still burns bright in the gloom, a yellow cow plays the violin, the Madonna with Child rises from the flames, and Christ's halo shines like a lighthouse beacon into the night.  There is hope for the future.

Chagall, a Jew, believed the Crucifixion was the only image powerful enough to properly express the persecution, suffering, and attempted annihilation of his people.  Sometimes his crucified Christ is Jewish, with tallit and phylacteries, sometimes his Christ is the Christian Jesus, with a halo, and sometimes his crucified figure is meant to represent a secular, every man.  Sometimes in Chagall's Golgotha, he replaces the Roman soldiers with Nazis, and animals, rabbis and Russian peasants often stand in for grieving angels.

After The Falling Angel was exhibited, Chagall felt a change come over him.  Chagall had spent nearly 25 years, a generation, working on the painting, dragging it's 5' x 6' frame with him from city to city, and half way across the world and back.  He had socialized with other avant-garde artists and forward-thinking people in both Paris and New York.  Now he wished to retreat from public life.  In 1950 he moved to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a quiet town on the Mediterranean coast of France.  He still had many years of painting ahead of him, but now he would do it in peace.

Henri Rousseau by Chris Hall

Henri Rousseau,  Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp , 1900.

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, 1900.

Henri Rousseau was a French Post Impressionist painter who worked in the so called “Naive” or “Primitive” style (I don't care for these terms, as they imply a negative connotation to me).  Rousseau was known by his nickname, “Le Douanier,” meaning “the Customs Officer,” for his occupation as a toll collector for the government.  Rousseau always aspired, in vain, to win the recognition of the conventional, Academic Art establishment.  For his efforts he was ridiculed in the press and by critics, who were prejudiced toward him because of his lack of a formal arts education.  Toward the end of his life, his work was appreciated by fellow art outsiders Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and would be held in high esteem by future generations of avant-garde artists, most notably the young Pablo Picasso.

Rousseau was a late bloomer and picked up the paint brush for the first time around the age of 40.  He was encouraged in his painting by his neighbor, the artist Felix Clement, who managed to obtain a license for Rousseau to make copies of art at the Louvre and other galleries.  In 1884 Rousseau submitted his work to the official Salon, but was rejected.  They found his paintings to be childlike and naive, lacking perspective and proportion.  But this would be only the first rejection, in a long career of many rejections from the traditional art establishment.

In 1886, Rousseau submitted work to the first Salon des Independants.  Rousseau would participate in the Salon des Independants every year between 1886 and 1910, except the ones in 1899 and 1900.  Anyone could participate in the Salon des Independants, as long as they paid the exhibition fee, and it quickly became a refuge for revolutionary and under-appreciated artists.  Rousseau's work would hang along side many other struggling artists, namely Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1888, Rousseau's first wife, Clemence, died at the young age of 37, of tuberculosis.  The memory of her would figure greatly in much of his future work.  In Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain, which he finished in 1890, Clemence is seen alone in the woods where they once liked to go on Sunday walks.  Her hand covers her heart, signifying passion or love, and the branch above her head, which is conspicuously cut off, might signify death.  Clemence is looking back with longing, but she must go on alone, leaving behind Rousseau and the children.  Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain was shown at the Salon des Independant, but because of its special meaning, it was not listed for sale.

Henri Rousseau often painted exotic jungle scenes populated with strange plants and animals.  While Rousseau did serve in the Army during the French incursion in Mexico, he was left stateside during the affair.  In fact, Rousseau never left France during his entire life; he was inspired to make his jungle paintings from his frequent visits to the Paris Zoo and the botanical gardens.  In 1890's there was a growing interest within the European public for exotic scenes from the tropics.  The late 19th century was the height of colonialist imperialism, and people were curious about the overseas territories that they felt belonged to them.  The darker aspects of colonialism, its exploitation of people and resources, was then unknown to most people back home.

Rousseau's first jungle landscape, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891 in the Salon des Independants, and found a small, receptive audience.  Simultaneously, Paul Gauguin was making art in Tahiti, and British author Rudyard Kipling was publishing the first of many stories and poems about India.  Despite the public's new interest in exotic subject matter, the critics were particularly savage, and once again ridiculed his work for what they perceived as an amateurish style.  In response, he would abandon the jungle landscape genre for some time.

In 1893, Rousseau asked for permission to retire early from the Customs House to paint full-time.  He was 49.  Rousseau's superiors and fellow workers had long supported him in his pursuit of painting, giving him the lighter work and  allowing him to paint while on the job.  His resignation was accepted and Rousseau moved with his family to the Montparnasse district in Paris, where he quickly established a studio.  Montparnasse, with its cheap rents and bohemian culture, would soon become famous for its population of young, struggling artists from around the world.

During all of the 1890's Rousseau continued to seek official patronage.  In 1893 he wrote a letter to the President of the Republic seeking assistance, and was rejected.  In 1898 he offered his painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, to the mayor of Laval for a considerable sum of money.  His offer was rejected.  In the same year, he submitted his plans for the decoration of the Vincennes Town Hall, and was rejected.  Two years later, in 1900, Rousseau offered to paint the Asnieres Town Hall, but was once again, rejected.

Rejected by the official art establishment and continually rebuffed in his attempts to find patronage and public commissions, Rousseau soon began to run into financial problems and he accumulated debts.  To make ends meet, he took up work as a part-time salesman for the Le Petit Journal, offered drawing lessons, and occasionally worked as a street musician.  Rousseau was a talented violinist and even managed to have a waltz he wrote for his first wife, Clemence, published by the Literary and Musical Academy of France. 

One day in 1908, a young Pablo Picasso was out shopping at the Père Soulier when he came across a stack of canvases being sold as work to be repainted over.  One of the paintings was a work by Henri Rousseau.  Picasso loved the painting and bought the canvas for five francs.  He did not see the work as amateurish and childlike, he saw it as charmingly nonconformist, as something unsullied by academia.  Rousseau had always tried to establish himself as a traditional painter, yet it was Picasso and the avant-garde artists, those rebelling against the academic tradition, who ended up championing his work.

Picasso tracked Rousseau down and introduced him to his social circle.  Some in his circle thought the untrained Rousseau a joke, a bumbling, old, naive curiosity, but Picasso and his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, held genuine affection for him and his work.  Later that year, Picasso even hosted banquet for him in his honor.  Rousseau had always considered himself to be a traditional painter, not an avant-garde iconoclast.  Despite the constant rejection and ridicule, he tried hard to impress himself into academic and bourgeois society.  Still, Rousseau was happy that someone, finally, appreciated his work.  Rousseau would die shortly thereafter, in 1910, but his work would live on to become influential to several generations of avant-garde artists, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, the Surrealists, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath.