Child with Doll by Henri Rousseau

Child with Doll by Henri Rousseau (1906)

I have to be very honest about my choice of painting for My Daily Art Display today.  I don’t like it.   I have looked at it for the last couple of hours as I write up some notes about it and it just has not won me over.   The painting, Child with Doll, is by the French artist, Henri Rousseau, which he completed in 1906 and can now be found in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.    I have studied some of his other works, some of which I really liked but I have decided to stick with my original choice as maybe you will find it a pleasing work of art.

First, let me tell you a little about this French Post-Impressionist painter.  Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born in Laval, a town in the Loire Valley in 1844.  His father Julien owned a number of tin-ware shops and the family lead a fairly prosperous lifestyle.   He went to the local elementary school at the age of five and all was well until 1851 when, due to some foolish speculation, his father lost his business and his home and was declared bankrupt.  In order that Henri could conclude his education uninterrupted he became a boarding pupil at his school.   Although he never gained academic greatness he won prizes for his drawings and his music.  In 1861, aged seventeen, he left school and joined his parents in Angers.   There he worked for a short time at a lawyer’s office.  However this came to an end when at the age of nineteen  he was accused of stealing 20 francs from his employer and to avoid legal retribution he ran away and took refuge in the army signing up for seven years.  However he did not escape the long arm of the law as in 1864 he was sent to gaol for one month, for his crime.

His father died in 1868 and Henri was released from his army service.  He returned to Paris and took up a government job so as to support his widowed mother.  In 1869, at the age of twenty-five he married his landlord’s fifteen year-old daughter, Clémence Boitard.  The couple had four children but sadly only one survived to adulthood.  In 1871 he was appointed a tax collector at the Paris Octroi, a government agency which collected taxes on goods being brought into the city.  It was not a very busy job and it is probably at this period in his life that he pursued his hobby, painting.  It was because of his official work that Rousseau received the nickname Douanier (tax collector) from his artist comrades.  It is thought that Rousseau did not become a serious artist until he was forty and was completely self-taught. 

Tragically his wife Clemence died in 1888 and this affected Rousseau badly.  Five years later Rousseau retired from the Paris Octroi and pursued his love of painting.   However, once he gave up his government employment, he relied on making money from his works of art and this just didn’t work out and soon he had financial troubles.  In 1889 he married for the second time.  His wife was Josephine Noury who sadly died after just four short years of marriage once again leaving the artist heartbroken. As the years passed his debts mounted and in 1907 he unwisely was duped into taking part in a bank fraud and was gaoled for his crime.  The sixty-three year old pleaded with the authorities to release him so that he could complete works of art for the upcoming exhibition of the Salon des Independents an annual event that he had been entering for many years.  He also told the court that unless he was freed from prison he would be unable to collect his pension and would forfeit it.  Rousseau seemed to have lost all sense of reality but with his artist friends, including Picasso, all giving glowing character references and admitting that Rousseau’s main crime was one of naiveté, the artist was released.

Henri Rousseau, Le Douanier, died in 1910 at the age of 66, from an infected leg wound.  A year later the Paris Salon organised an exhibition of his work.   Seven friends stood at his grave in the Cimetiere de Bagneux: the painters Paul Signac and Otiz de Zarate, Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia Terk, the sculptor Brancusi, Rousseau’s landlord Armand Queval and Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote the epitaph Brancusi put on the tombstone.  It read:

We salute you Gentle Rousseau you can hear us.
Delaunay, his wife, Monsieur Queval and myself.
Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates of heaven.
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas.
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light and Truth of Painting.
As you once did my portrait facing the stars

And so we finally come to today’s painting Child with Doll which he painted when he was 62, four years before his death.  The child has obviously not been painted as she looks.  Rousseau has distorted the figure.  Her body is bloated.  Her face seems as if it has been compressed and her legs form a very awkward, if not a downright impossible posture.  It makes you wonder whether she is actually standing or maybe she was sitting and Rousseau had decided not to incorporate the chair into the painting.  This type of unusual pose was not altogether new to Rousseau’s paintings in fact it was almost his trademark.  The contrast in his colours in this painting is very stark.  Look how the red of the dress becomes much more noticeable against the cool blue of the background.  It is also interesting to note how he has given the girl’s dress a “spotted” pattern almost similar to the pattern of the flowers on the grass.  Each flower and each blade of grass has been lovingly painted.  The girl herself appears to have no neck as her head is pressed down into her body.  It doesn’t look like a young face. It is an almost round face which has more of an appearance of an adult although it does retain a child-like chubbiness.    She stares at us in a strange and disconcerting way.  However if we look at her hands they are child-like.  Her legs are strangely cut off by the tall grass.  It is believed that Rousseau had an aversion to painting feet.  She holds on tightly to her beloved doll which has turned a shade of grey, probably from constant handling.  It is a simplistic painting.  There is no need to look for interpretations or symbolism.  Rousseau was obsessed with the idea of  the “realism-genre”.    For me, with this painting, what you see is what you get and I didn’t get much but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I hope you enjoyed it.