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By Jerôme Le Blay
'Le Douanier ' Rousseau 's portrait of a young Parisian poet is a recent and exciting discovery..
Was it because Henri 'le Douanier' Rousseau never found recognition in his own time that so many of his works have been lost? His wife Josephine opened a paper shop near Gare Montparnasse and tried very hard, but not very successfully, to sell his paintings. Occasionally, he was forced to give them away in exchange for laundry or other services. After Josephine's death in 1903, the critic Rémy de Gourmont met Rousseau playing his violin in the streets to pay for his next meal. Picasso once discovered a Rousseau portrait in the street - and bought it for next to nothing. He said it 'produced an astonishing effect on me. I was walking along the rue des Martyrs. A bric-à-brac salesman was hanging out canvases along the wall. A portrait caught my attention. It was the head of a woman with a severe and penetrating expression, limpid and resolute: the look of a French woman. The canvas was enormous. I asked how much it was. "One hundred pennies", answered the sales-man. "You can clean the canvas and you can work on top of it". This is the most representative psychological painting in the École Française.' Portrait de Femme
is now at the Picasso Museum, Paris.
which disappeared after 1895, was found again in 1944 - the Louvre bought it two years later. Portrait d'Alfred Jarry
is still lost. Its companion, Portrait de Léon-Paul Fargue
- also seemingly lost since its exhibition in 1925 at the Grand Maison de Blanc - was acquired in February 1934 from art dealer and Rousseau biographer Adolphe Basler by the grand-parents of the present owner.
Fargue, a poet, described its origins in Le Piéton de Paris
(Gallimard, 1939): 'Alfred Jarry and I unconsciously found each other, after strolling and café-sitting in the city, back in Rousseau's studio. We realized it wouldn't take long for him to paint our portraits, and we each did so in turn. Rousseau depicted me, typically, with a pointy beard in front of a window, watching a railway tangled up in thick smoke in the image of a horse. I don't know what became of this portrait that he never gave me.'
In 1896 Fargue was only 20. A writer friend described him as 'a mysterious young man who, clothed in a well-tailored suit, mannerisms stamped with a grand refinement, distinguished himself from our little group... the childlike dreamer whose eyes were much more those of an oriental prince than a child of Paris […]. The face with the whiteness of wax, embellished with an amazing black beard, a gentle searching expression, who spoke in a low tone with confidence, as if he was deep in a dream, and could only tell us things from another life. This boy won us over very quickly.'
Jerôme Le Blay is Senior Specialist in the Impressionist and Modern Paintings Department, Christie's Paris.
Tel: 44 (0)20 7389 2452
Tel: 44 (0)20 7389 2450
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