Henri Rousseau endured the art-historical misfortune of being a working-class late bloomer—he was a Sunday painter who only began to paint seriously in his 40s—with what seemed to his critics little natural talent. His unsentimental, haunting images nonetheless drew the attention of a literary and artistic coterie hungry for fresh recruits. How did Rousseau, whose style still commands belittling adjectives such as “naive” and “simple,” escape relegation to the margins of art history? It was, as the writer André Malraux has pointed out, the former toll clerk’s friendship with a legion of well-established masters that has by and large guaranteed his place in the history of Modern art. During his lifetime Rousseau became something of a sensation within the relatively small Parisian art scene. His astonishing works were celebrated by Guillaume Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, and Pablo Picasso, and he came to be considered a major force by artists such as Max Beckmann, Vasily Kandinsky, and Fernand Léger only a few years after his pauper’s death.
To the extent that he had limited official success while he lived, Rousseau can be said to have invented himself—he barged uninvited into exhibitions and dinner parties alike, assuming the posture of an honored guest—just as he invented images unlike anything around him. Canvases such as Artillerymen and The Football Players have been interpreted as Rousseau’s quirky attempts to depict modern times, whether with a dapper military company as in the former example, or with the four natty enthusiasts of a new sport, rugby, in the latter. It is to his credit that we still have no adequate words to describe a painting in which rugby players look like pajama-clad twins, or one in which 14 identical handlebar mustaches succeed in delivering a spirited image of an artillery battery.