In “The Autobiograpahy of Alice B. Toklas,” Gertrude Stein recounts the story of a legendary 1908 banquet organized by Picasso at his studio, the Bateau Lavoir, in honor of the self-taught painter known as Douanier Rousseau. The old artist was enthroned at the head of the table and glowed like the Chinese paper lanterns overhead. He entertained the company by playing his waltz “Clemence” on his fiddle and announced tipsily to Picasso, “We are the greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern.”

The familiar story always poses the same intriguing question: What did Rousseau’s artistic entourage actually think of him? Was the banquet truly an affectionate homage to the artist who produced exotic jungle scenes by studying the flora in Paris’ botanical gardens, or was it a subtle send-up of a naif so spacey and gullible he nearly went to prison because he had been drawn into a bank swindle when he thought he was doing a friendly favor?

In 1910, Rousseau cut his leg while working in the studio. It was a minor wound, but the artist absent-mindedly neglected it, probably because he was pining over a 55-year-old widow with whom he was deliriously in love. He developed an infection and died Sept. 2 at age 66. Only seven people attended the funeral. Well, the old character is gone. No need to depress oneself at a burial. He was supposed to be amusing.


Such biographical enigmas are mere gossip unless they bear directly on the quality or expressive vectors of art. That these do is amply clear in a cobweb-clearing retrospective of Rousseau’s painting that opened here Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art and remains on view to June 4. Astonishingly, its 60-odd works constitute the very first comprehensive overview of the artist. Most loans from French museums have never before been seen in the United States.

The show originated at Paris’ Grand Palais. MOMA is its only American stop. It’s another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The fact that our museums are able to offer such singular experiences a few times every year should not make us jaded. Unique is still unique despite strenuous efforts of copywriters and journalists to devaluate the word.

Unique is also the only term adequate to describe Henri Rousseau. He is the only artist of his kind to sit enshrined as a peer with the great innovators of modernism. Facile mental categorization tends to see him as the only “folk” artist to be taken completely seriously by the pros. For decades, he has been used as aesthetic justification for every cute, cunning, over-advantaged matron who wants to paint a little and for every New York illustrator who wants to act innocent while giving us a wise little wink. In short, a lot of bad art has been perpetuated in Rousseau’s name, but that is not his fault any more than legions of amateur Assemblagists are Joseph Cornell’s.

One good scan of this exhibition proves he was no folk artist. Aside from gut evidence, there is the piquant fact that a couple of landscape studies show he was perfectly capable of broad-brush observed notation from nature that is utterly beyond the grasp of the dogged conceptual procedure of a folkie.

In preparatory and finished versions of a view of the Ile Saint Louis, he starts off with a quasi-Impressionist study that is perfectly sensible spatially. He then seems to add the naive stuff like out-of-scale figures and diminished atmospheric perspective.

Who was this guy, anyway?

That question may never be answered, but one thing is sure--Douanier Rousseau is never quite who he seems. He liked, for example, to create the impression that his great jungle pictures like “The Dream” and the haunting “The Snake Charmer” were inspired when he was on youthful military duty in Mexico.

He never went to Mexico.

He liked to play up his own status as an autodidact but--probably through acquaintance with academic artists like Leon Gerome--Rousseau had a hard-to-get permit to copy in the Louvre. Asked how he retained his fresh vision, he replied, “If I have kept my naivete, it is because M. Gerome always told me to keep it.”


Now there is a piece of cunning guilelessness to make Andy Warhol proud.

Rousseau did not even quite deserve his nickname. He was never a douanier , a person who collects customs duties at the national border. He had a minor post with Paris’ toll-collecting service, the Octroi. He retired from it at age 49 with a tiny pension.

Artistically, however, Rousseau was something of a metaphorical customs man combined with traffic cop. No wonder the artists had equivocal feelings about him. Looking at his work must have been like being directed down the right road at a complicated intersection and thinking, “How did that guy know where I was going?”

In some magical, pedestrian, bumbling, calculated, intuitive, stubborn way, Rousseau was in touch with every major artistic avenue of his time. His jungle pictures combine Post-Impressionist qualities, raking together Gauguin’s individuality and exoticism with Seurat’s methodical serenity.

Portraits like the lovely 1900 pair of the artist and his second wife, Josephine Noury, are at once as believable as photographs and as self-referential as Cubism. In a catalogue essay by curators Carolyn Lancher and William Rubin, they carry on so much about Rousseau’s influence on Picasso it threatens to become a piece about the Spaniard. But there can be little doubt that Picasso found Rousseau already staked out on the turf of the mythic imagination that would absorb so much of his own creative energy. (When Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” turned up posthumously, it was thought for a time to be a prank faux Rousseau actually painted by Picasso.)

Rousseau managed to hark back to Italian primitives like Giotto, Piero della Francesca or Uccello, and cast his shadow forward over Leger, the Surrealists and recent primitive Neo-Expressionists like Charles Garabedian without ever either looking like them or allowing them to look quite like him.

The exhibition reminds us that Rousseau possessed remarkable pictorial and expressive range. He had a typical French love of simple, everyday events, domestic life and friendships. His landscapes and portraits are full of appreciation of the quotidian but without any of the associated sentimentality or conservatism.

His wonderful “Myself, Portrait Landscape” of 1890 uses his centrally placed monumental figure to represent his near-religious faith in the metier of the artist as a transcendent calling. In the background, he shows an air balloon and bit of the Eiffel Tower at a time when such “modern” subjects were considered subversive of the values of culture and beneath serious depiction.

Of overriding importance, however, is his technical and psychological treatment of form. There is virtually no overt emotive content. Things are simply placed, calmly, and their meaning grows from juxtaposition.

Formally, he concentrates on pattern outline and shape. There is no apparent source of light, but there is light so things either justify themselves as decorative surfaces or they seem to emanate their own glow, like those Chinese lanterns at the banquet.

The result is a kind of visionary flash that gives Rousseau’s work the reality of hallucination. It always seems less like some object that we are viewing than a waking dream that materializes before us. Its magical aura lends mythic importance to a lightweight subject like “The Football Players” and takes the sting out of violent motifs. Also, like dreams, it has a matter-of-factness, so even a terrifying vision like “War” is not shocking. It is expressively more effective than a mere propagandistic jolt. Its message of dawning dread finally inspires horror that is as deep as war deserves.

In the best sense, Rousseau produced a kind of fantasy art that illustrators long for and never capture. It also must be admitted that he needs the supporting columns of his greatest work to foster proper appreciation of the rest.

“Liberty Inviting Artists to Take Part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Societe des Artistes Independents” might be mistaken for an oddity by an idealistic crank if the unforgettable chef d’ouevre , “The Dream,” were not there to support it. “Old Junyer’s Cart” might wax a trifle quaint without “The Snake Charmer” to prove the artist capable of humid sensuality and sinister intimation.

This is a bracing exhibition quite on its own. If we combine it with MOMA’s epochal “Primitivism and 20th-Century Art” of last fall, it almost seems they are trying to tell us something.

“Primitivism” gave one the unsettled feeling that much of Modernism was a kind of rip-off of tribal art. The Rousseau exhibition presents us an artist whose personal integrity and artistic authenticity gave him an illusive but nonetheless real originality that outstrips that of some of the more obvious innovators.

Taken together, the two exhibitions may stand as a rebuke to excessive artistic careerism of whatever kind, especially the forced market and socially manipulative ambiance that taints the sphere today.

Rousseau was undoubtedly a bit of a fraud and is a bit of a cult figure. All the same, his little exaggerations and his friends’ distortions all point to a borderline saint who sold masterpieces for a song, had an unshakable sense of wonder in life and produced art that encourages everyone to really be their own best selves.