The first night of New York’s Spring Auction 2023 has marked a new sale record for Henri Rousseau: his painting “Les Flamants” (1907), coming from the Joan Whitney Payson Collection, was sold for 43,6 million dollars by Christie’s. The artist’s previous top price goes back to 1993, with the sale of “Portrait de Joseph Brummer” (1909) at Christie’s in London, but “Les Flamants” was expected to break the record not only because of its stunning beauty but also because of its provenance, as it has been part of the legendary Whitney Collection since 1949.
Who is Henri Rousseau?
Born in 1844 in Laval, in northwest France, he was a provincial transplant to Paris who struggled with economic uncertainty for most of his life. He worked as a customs clerk on the city’s outskirts, a post that earned him the nickname Le Douanier. As an artist, he was self-taught and could not paint full-time until his retirement in 1893. Nonetheless, Rousseau tried to join the refined artists of the French Academy, showing his works to fellow artists and gallerists, searching for approval; however, being an outsider, Rousseau followed his own rules, different enough from the artistic establishment’s setting to provoke more derision than admiration. Although he worked in traditional genres (landscapes, portraits, and exotic scenes), they were interpreted by his personal style, which was unique for the time, and therefore didn’t fit the current taste.
Rousseau’s best-known subject is the jungle, with its flora and fauna, depicted in a bold style and with a somehow childish choice of shapes: the curious fact is that the artist never left France, so his portrayal of exotic scenes is totally fictional, and maybe this is the source of his magic touch. His paintings described the fantasies of a city dweller, shaped by visits to the botanical gardens, the zoo, and colonial expositions, as well as images of distant lands seen in books and magazines.
A first recognition came in 1905 when Rousseau was accepted to exhibit “The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope” at the Salon des Indépendants near works of avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse in what is now seen as the first showing of The Fauves. Rousseau’s painting may even have influenced the naming of the Fauves. But his success was yet to come. When Pablo Picasso happened upon a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over, the younger artist instantly recognized the genius and went to meet him. In 1908, Picasso held a banquet in his studio in Rousseau’s honor: Le Banquet Rousseau, dubbed “one of the most notable social events of the twentieth century,” wrote American poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin. Guests at the banquet Rousseau included, among others, Guillame Apollinaire, Juan Gris, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and Gertrude Stein.
Rousseau exhibited his final painting, “The Dream,” in March 1910 at the Salon des Indépendants.
He died from a blood clot on 2 September 1910.