A Sunday painter who never mistrusted his hand

THE Parisian painter Henri Rousseau is much better known as ``Le Douanier,'' ``The Customs Officer,'' a title not exactly correct but perhaps as near truth as the label naif. Rousseau was sufficiently astute to realize that being considered naive served him well. His pictures are simple, a reaction of heart and mind to the academic and intellectual arts of the turn of the century. Le Douanier, proudly self-taught, paid no attention to established traditions and painted what he saw with a nature lover's sentimental slant. The errors in design, or better the liberal construction, bring out the sense of fresh ingenuity and boyish enthusiasm that animate the work.

Rousseau expected imagination and art to express the joy of living. He never mistrusted his hand, instinctively placing each touch at the proper spot. Colors, dense and supple, become as precious as enamel. The cold crystalline light glimmers with poetry and charm.

Rousseau painted landscapes, portraits, animals, and real or fancied themes. As early as 1886 the Salon des Ind'ependants exhibited his work as that of a ``Sunday painter.''

Rousseau decided to retire early to have full time for painting and music. Often obliged to play the violin on the streets to be able to eat, he always had a little to give poorer neighbors. They called him ``Pap`a Rousseau,'' and he was proud of the title.

In ``The Wedding'' of 1905, the artist addressed the ambitious, difficult theme of collective portraits. The princely appearing group is framed by nature, here two distinct species of trees. The bride's importance is highlighted by her being all in white, surrounded by figures in black, even to the dog down front which completes the circle.

The genial Douanier occasionally entertained with famous ``Soir`ees Informal and Artistic.'' Everyone came: young and old; pupils; people of the quarter; literary, philosophical, and artistic personages. The latter had been devoted admirers and friends almost from the first. The evenings brimmed with fun, music, and laughter. He loved everyone and they loved him.

In his passionate devotion to painting, Rousseau discovered the way to fulfill his dreams. Eventually, his pictures began to be more audacious and to include invented scenes of the jungles of Mexico. In these, the absurd is united to the magnificent in undeniably beautiful and poetic compositions.

Henri Rousseau created unique masterpieces, found today in prestigious museums in the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, and throughout Europe. The Sunday painter has been enthroned among the great artists of history.

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