La Bohémienne Endormie (1897) by Henri Rousseau
I think Joseph Cornell could have empathized with Henri Rousseau, at least a little. Father of American collage and inventor of the Surrealist shadow box, Cornell knew all too well how it felt to be born out of place. His dreamlike constructions reveal a true Francophile, though he would never set foot in France. A half-century earlier, Rousseau had rhapsodized about his own far-flung, exotic locales, painting jungle scenes inhabited by creatures he’d only seen in the Paris zoo. In contrast to Cornell, he never set foot out of France.
But the New Yorker and the Parisian had another thing in common besides an unrequited love for someplace else. Each lost his father early in life (Cornell at fourteen, Rousseau at twenty-four) and so was forced to become the family breadwinner. Eventually, Cornell’s loss of youthful play would be channeled into assemblages that felt like arcade games, and Rousseau’s loss of youthful freedom manifested itself as travelogues on canvas, colorfully but flatly illustrated with these scenes he made up in his head.
The Sleeping Gypsy, above, is among the most iconic Rousseau works, and its innocent figuration exemplifies the naive style for which he was for years dismissed. In fact one might wonder, if he was as unassuming and childlike as his paintings, did he perhaps fantasize that he was the lion and his critics the gypsy?
Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born May 21, 1844.