COCKTAIL ARTY: Banquet for Douanier Rousseau
Henri Rousseau, The Dream at MoMA NYC, photo: A. Słodownik, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

Banquet for Douanier Rousseau

BY Paweł Soszyński

The comical aura surrounding the painter Rousseau led young Picasso to a grand idea. In December 1908, he decided to throw a party in honor of Rousseau’s genius – a banquet that would become history

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Pablo Picasso thought he was the first to discover Douanier Rousseau on the day he bought one of paintings, a large canvas later known as Portrait of Clémence, found at the Paris junk shop of one Sagot. It is already at this point – as in every biographical narrative, especially by someone who, like Picasso, creates his own legend – that factographic doubts arise. It is not clear whether the painting found by the future author of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was a portrait of Clémence or of Yadwigha, as Brassai maintains in his Conversations with Picasso, drawing his information straight from the horse’s mouth, in fact.

The matter is complicated and rather delicate. For the future banquet, however, thrown for Le Douanier, it is of fundamental significance because it is in front of that painting that Henri Rousseau would eight years later receive a tribute from the Paris avant-garde; a perverse tribute, because it was basically a joke, but ripe in consequences because with it Douanier Rousseau became part not only of the colorful history of the Montmartre bohemia but also – and above all – of the history of naïve art as its most outstanding representative, its founding father. So let’s stick with what we know for sure: there’s no doubt that Picasso met Rousseau for the first time in 1900, the year when, less than 19 years old, on a sunny September morning, he, Picasso, got off a train from Barcelona at the Paris d’Orsay station (something we know about from, among other sources, a documentary comic he drew for his family and friends).

COCKTAIL ARTY... a series by Paweł Soszyński, in which he describes the most fascinating parties in the art world past and presence.

In reality, one of the most famous primitive painters in history had developed a sizable fan base by 1900, even if none of his fans treated his paintings completely seriously. The most important of those enthusiasts was Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and Picasso’s friend during that early, difficult, but highly entertaining period in his life. It is Apollinaire who will write the epitaph that will be put on Rousseau’s tombstone at the Montmartre cemetery in 1910. Among Le Douanier’s fans were also Alfred Jarry, Pissarro, and Paul Signac, also a painter. All were fascinated by the exotic, ambitious compositions representing allegoric genre scenes entwined by ivy, liana vines and rainforest vegetation, with tigers and lions lying in wait on patterned, subtropical litter.

Douanier Rousseau’s star shone for the first time in 1885 when one of his paintings was shown in the Salon des Refusés (the event, accompanying the regular Salon, described by Emil Zola in L’Œuvre). Another triumph was an exhibition, not so negatively colored this time, in the Salon des Indépendants (1886). Here too, however, the viewers could not hide their amusement at the sight of the somewhat clumsy – compared with the academic painting of the late 19th century but, in this setting, vigorous and innovative – visions of the puzzling employee of the Paris Customs Office. Le Douanier didn’t care about the laughter: he had always been sure of his genius and lacked just one thing – access to an audience, compensated now by the Salons.

Henri Rousseau

Regarded as the most outstanding representative of naïve painting. Born in Laval in 1844. At the age of 19, he joined the army for a seven-year contract, but in 1868, following his father’s death, he abandoned the military career and moved to Paris where, working as a government employee, he married Clémence Boitard. In 1871, he became an employee of the Paris Excise Office (in the 19th century, there was an excise tax on goods imported to Paris). He started painting at the age of 41. In 1885, he showed two paintings at the Salon des Refusés. A year later, painter Paul Signac invited him to participate in the Salon des Indépendants. In 1906, Alfred Jarry introduced him to Guillaume Apollinaire and Douanier Rousseau joined the artistic avant-garde community. He died on September 2, 1910 of gangrene. He was buried in a mass grave, moved a year later, and was given a gravestone with Apollinaire’s epitaph written especially for him:

Hear us
Kind Rousseau, we salute you
Delaunay, his wife, monsieur Queval and I
Let our baggage pass through heaven’s gate
We shall bring you brushes, paints, and canvases
So that your sacred leisure in the real light
You can devote to painting, the way you did my portrait
The face of the stars.

In Picasso’s company, Rousseau was perceived as a naïve fantast, good with the goodness of a child, an aesthetic “preemie”, incubated by the delighted avant-garde. For Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first love in Paris, Le Douanier is a good-natured simpleton, trotting rather than walking, with thick gray hair. In her memoirs, Picasso et ses amis, she adds that he had a frightened, goodness-radiating face, which, however, seems to be an exaggeration. But that’s exactly as they wanted to see him: as a bizarre, vigorous child, symbolic for the post-Impressionists fascinated with tribal “Negro art” and the simple, folk sensitivity of the anonymous authors of wood and terracotta figurines. Douanier Rousseau was perfect material for a genuine spokesman of their aesthetic revolution. He was indigenous to that imagined primal vitality, documented in his lively, academic pretense-less paintings, emanating the sensuality of the jungle and the angular finesse of Mexican ornamentation. Moreover, he was an embodiment of pure imagination because – in defiance of the Impressionists’ principle of study from nature – he shamelessly made things up, something that in fact both Picasso and Apollinaire laughed at; after all, he had never been either to South America or even to the exotic parts of the Mediterranean basin.

The exciting, fabulous-comical aura surrounding the old Douanier led Picasso to a mischievously amusing, grand idea that bordered on artistic happening. In 1908, he decided to throw a ceremonial banquet  in honor of Henri Rousseau’s genius at his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir, on top of the already legendary, Impressionist-famed Montmartre. Among those who worked and lived there were Renoir (it was there that his son, Jean, was born), Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, who died on the hill in an apartment at 6 Clichy Boulevard and the young avant-gardists, in a tribute to his greatness and proverbial malice, from then on played the game of “Degas”, which involved serving caustic remarks with the cold distinction the patron of those duels had become famous for.

In 1900, the Montmartre, though just an hour’s walk from downtown Paris, remained a suburb of the French capital. It was a small area, several hectares, bound by the streets Abbessses, Caulaincourt, Clignancourt and Avenue Junot, pervaded by the provincial, rural atmosphere of the nearby Île-de-France. The country homes, often with thatched roofs, were surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens as well as meadows, where Isadora Duncan, as a romantic, spicy rumour has it, practiced Greek dances with female students dressed in scanty tunics. There were several shops there, a couple of service workshops, an infinite number of bars and cabarets, and artist colonies: the Des Arts villa and Les Fusains, where Renoir had his studio and Derain lived during the Fauvist period, gathering a spectacular collection of antiques, Chinese porcelain, ethnic art, and paintings that were placed amid all this junk, as the painter’s friends maliciously commented, on the floor, tables, chairs and shelves, making normal life impossible. In 1955, Derain’s “junk” was valued at a round 75 million francs, a fact that Picasso remembers with amusement.

Those artistic villas were joined in 1889 by probably the most famous one of them, the legendary Bateau-Lavoir, even though – like Des Arts and Les Fusains – it was not actually a villa. In Jean-Paul Crespell’s Vie quotidienne à Montmartre au temps de Picasso, 1900-1910 we find the following fragment: “In 1889, the then owner commissioned architect Paul Vasseur to divide the building into ten studios, the lease of which would generate a substantial profit at a time the Montmartre had become popular with artists. The architect didn’t stretch his imagination too much; he settled for partitioning the individual floors with plank walls, creating a kind of labyrinth composed of absurdly narrow corridors and like staircases.”

The “Washing Boat” gave shelter to artists, drunks and eccentrics; the most well-known story involves one who ordered a door plaque identifying him as a “Farmer”, which Derain made a joke of by dressing the poor guy in a folk costume and featuring his photograph in a newspaper with the caption, “The last living Paris peasant.” One of the building’s most important residents, however, was Picasso, who occupied a small room with a studio in one of the souterrains. After The Young Ladies of Avignon, he was able to fill the small space with rather decent furniture and with decorations (chiefly African masks). A sudden influx of cash – Picasso, an unusual thing, started to be paid in gold – allowed the artist to throw a lavish party for his friends; a banquet that no one living under the infamous No. 13 had experienced before.

Picasso’s banquet could be viewed as the most extreme, most ambitious example of the Montmartre game of “Degas” – it was, in fact, a malicious joke disguised as a dignified celebration event. Exactly at 6 p.m., a cab carrying the guest of honour, escorted by Apollinaire, arrived at the Bateau-Lavoir. Meanwhile, Fernande had been hurriedly preparing a large plate of rice à la valenciennes, cold cuts, which Picasso had run to the little shops down the Montmartre to buy, and countless cakes – resulting in an improvised buffet, because the catering ordered from Félix Potin had unfortunately failed to arrive (by a mistake, it materialised at the door only two days later). All furniture had been removed from Picasso’s apartment and the adjoining studio of Juan Gris had been turned into a cloakroom. The whole, decorated with flags, twigs and a huge banner saying “Glory to Rousseau”, resembled a parody of patriotic gatherings on French Independence Day. Opposite the table, on a platform underneath a Chinese lantern, a Louis Philippe armchair had been placed in which the visibly moved Rousseau, master of the ceremony, celebrating his benefit show, was seated.

After 8 p.m., a drinking spree began in earnest, or at least intensified, because most of the thirty invited guests had already gotten so merry at Fauvet’s, and they drank so eagerly that Marie Laurencin, a painter famous for her idealised female portraits, soon after entering the Gris “cloakroom,” barged into the cake plates and – completely drunk – started to throw herself at the guests and smear them with cream. The excess was interrupted by Apollinaire who, angered, sent the tearful girl home (in fact, the avant-garde paintress set herself up on the stairs of a nearby cabaret, shocking the passers-by). In a central place, amid the African masks, several easels were set up to hold Portrait of Clémence, a painting Picasso had bought eight years earlier and retained for the rest  of his life.

The first to speak was Maurice Cremnitz:

Here is a painting by Le Douanier
The man who tames nature
With his magic painture

The declamation was accompanied by Georges Braque playing the harmonica and Ramón Pichot, Impressionist painter, Picasso’s great friend and Dali’s first master, performing Spanish dances in a rather bizarre manner. The next poem was recited by Apollinaire:

The images you paint you saw in Mexico,  
A red sun lit the banana treetops,
And you, courageous soldier, have swapped your tunic
For the blue jacket of the brave douanier.

The poem, which included other openly sneering references to the painter’s “exotic” experiences (“You remember, Rousseau, the Aztec landscape”!), was applauded and its rather drunk protagonist, with a cone of stearin dripping from the lantern accumulating on his hat, thanked the poet by raising one of the evening’s many toasts. Another prank was by the poet and critic André Salmon who, for the sake of the Americans brought by Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, staged a simulation of delirium tremens, which he did by chewing soap and foaming at the mouth together with the equally convincing Cremnitz. The moment is solemnly remembered by Stein’s lover in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Salmon continued to frolic and eventually became so drunk and obnoxious he had to be locked up in the storeroom where, out of boredom, he ate the hat of the already frightened Toklas. In fact, the Americans, having expected a less intense presentation of the legendary Paris élan, had quietly left the party much earlier.

Towards the end, the banquet took a rather unexpected turn, the hitherto private event attracted a crowd of painters, poets and ordinary clochards, pushing in through the doors and windows to Picasso’s little “salon”. Most of them were daubers, dressed in the then trendy wide-rimmed hats, colourful jackets, long boots, bandanas, a herald of the hippie movement several decades later, tied on their long hair, and, the latest in avant-garde fashion, proudly sporting military jackets. The newcomers, already merry, focused chiefly on consumption, stuffing their pockets with the cakes, which made Picasso’s lover furious. In the increasingly stuffy air, surrounded by a chaotic company that was completely uninterested in him, Henri ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau decided to play first, or rather last, fiddle for once, fetching his violin and delivering Waltz for Clémence, composed specially for the evening, for the “fans” gathered in the room. There was a frantic ovation but as Le Douanier, exhausted, had slumped from his chair to the floor during the last wistful phrase, Picasso decided to conclude the event.

A cab was summoned to take Douanier Rousseau down the Montmartre. Before departing, the critically intoxicated painter thought it fit to make a short speech directed at Picasso: “You and I are the greatest painters of our time,” he said. “You in the Egyptian style, I in the modern!” The words, which appear funny only at first sight, were probably not much to the Spanish genius’s liking. The remaining guests, including Derain, who, amid the remains of Alice Toklas’s hat, slept in the storeroom until morning, went to sleep with the hosts on the sofa and the floor. The banquet was hailed as a success and on the very next day it became a legend.

The Douanier banquet turned out to have been a benefit event not only for the naïve painter but also for the Bateau-Lavoir. Picasso and Fernande soon moved out of the cramped space and moved into a centrally heated, spacious apartment in a prestigious, passenger lift-equipped tenement house on the Montparnasse. The “Boat” was left by many other, later famous, artists as well.

The most serious consequences of the evening at Picasso’s were enjoyed, however, by Douanier Rousseau himself. What was originally conceived as a lavish joke by the recently enriched Picasso transformed Rousseau into a full-time artist who started to be appreciated not only by the increasingly important post-Impressionists. A mere two years before his death, Henri Rousseau earned the reputation of a respected artist, attracting large numbers of followers, including many among academically educated painters. Le Douanier became history – his dream was fulfilled.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak