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Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist. Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died. The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease). Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”. He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists). However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.
Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay, Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907. The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness. A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile. Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun. Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).
Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting. Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think. Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time. Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War. Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing. Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.