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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from the Estate of Payne Whitney Middleton

Les Flamants

Les Flamants
signed 'Henri Rousseau' (lower left)
oil on canvas
44 7/8 x 63 1/4 in. (113.8 x 162 cm.)
Painted in 1910
Wilhelm Uhde, Paris (probably acquired from the artist, 1910, until at least 1912).
Paul and Charlotte (Lotte) von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin (by 1926).
Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin (1927).
Elsa von Kesselstatt, Vaduz (by descent from the above, 1935).
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc. and Rudolf Heinemann, New York (acquired from the above through Walter Feilchenfeldt, Zurich, 2 September 1949).
Charles S. and Joan Whitney Payson, New York (acquired from the above, October 1949).
By descent from the above to the late owner.
A. Warnod, Comoedia, 30 October 1912.
R. Grey, “Henri Rousseau” in Action: Cahiers de philosophie et d'art, vol. 2, no. 7, May 1921 (illustrated; titled La berge aux flamants).
A. Basler, Henri Rousseau: Sa vie—son oeuvre, Paris, 1927, p. 11 (illustrated, pl. 41; dated 1906).
A. Salmon, Henri Rousseau, dit Le Douanier, Paris, 1927, p. 140, no. 32 (illustrated).
P. Soupault, Henri Rousseau, Le Douanier, Paris, 1927 (illustrated, pl. 30; dated circa 1907).
C. Zervos, Henri Rousseau, Paris, 1927, p. 111 (illustrated, p. 64).
Der Querschnitt, vol. IX, no. 6, June 1929 (illustrated).
C. Burrows, “Letter from New York” in Apollo: A Journal of the Arts, vol. 13, January 1931, p. 181.
C. Einstein, Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1931, p. 636 (illustrated in color, pl. IV).
R. Flint, “Henri Rousseau has his First One Man Show” in The Art News, vol. 29, no. 14, 3 January 1931, pp. 3-4.
C.J. Bulliet, The Significant Moderns and their Pictures, New York, 1936, no. 135 (illustrated).
R. Grey, Henri Rousseau, Paris, 1943, no. 127 (illustrated).
D. Cooper, Rousseau, Paris, 1951, p. 58.
Lo Duca, Henri Rousseau, dit Le Douanier, Paris, 1951, p. 12 (illustrated).
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Payson, New York, 1960 (illustrated in color).
J. Bouret, Henri Rousseau, Neuchâtel, 1961, pp. 227 and 260, no. 185 (illustrated, p. 227; dated 1907).
D. Vallier, Henri Rousseau, Paris, 1961, p. 309, no. 151 (illustrated; dated 1907).
J. Bouret, Henri Rousseau, London, 1962, no. 25 (illustrated).
O. Bihalji-Merin, Leben und Werk des Malers Henri Rousseau, Dresden, 1971, pp. 44 and 149 (illustrated, pl. 50).
C. Keay, Henri Rousseau: Le Douanier, New York, 1976, p. 35.
R. Alley, Portrait of a Primitive: The Art of Henri Rousseau, New York, 1978, p. 71 (illustrated, pl. 60; dated circa 1907).
F. Elgar, Henri Rousseau, Paris, 1980, no. 46 (illustrated; dated 1907).
C. Stabenow, Die Urwaldbilder des Henri Rousseau: Stilbildung und Verhältnis zum Gesamtwerk, PhD. Diss., Munich, 1980, pp. 27, 101, 105, 194, 200 and 236.
Y. Le Pichon, Le monde du Douanier Rousseau, Paris, 1981 (illustrated in color).
D. Vallier, Tout l’oeuvre peint de Henri Rousseau, Paris, 1982, p. 107, no. 196 (illustrated; illustrated again in color, pl. XXXVI; dated 1907).
H. Certigny, Le Douanier Rousseau en son temps, Tokyo, 1984, vol. II, p. 690, no. 318 (illustrated, p. 691) and 1991, vol. III, p. 4.
W. Schmalenbach, Henri Rousseau: Dreams of the Jungle, Munich, 1998, p. 40 (illustrated in color; dated circa 1907).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Henri Rousseau, October-November 1912, no. 10 (titled La forêt vierge).
Berlin, Galerie Flechtheim, Henri Rousseau, March 1926, p. 28, no. 29 (illustrated, p. 31).
New York, Marie Harriman Gallery, Henri Rousseau, January 1931, no. 13 (illustrated).
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Pictures Collected by Yale Alumni, May-June 1956, no. 151 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Henri Rousseau, dit “Le Douanier", February-April 1961, no. 54 (illustrated; dated 1907).
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Le Douanier Rousseau, September 1984-June 1985, p. 192, no. 37 (illustrated in color, p. 193; dated circa 1907).
Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Collector's Passion, July-October 1991, no. 47 (illustrated in color; dated 1907).
Kunsthalle Tübingen, Henri Rousseau: Der Zöllner, Grenzgänger zur Moderne, February-June 2001, pp. 206-208, no. 42 (illustrated in color, p. 207; detail illustrated in color, p. 205; dated 1907).
London, Tate Modern and Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, November 2005-October 2006, pp. 111, 117 and 223, no. 24 (illustrated in color, p. 117; detail illustrated in color, p. 110, fig. 80; dated 1907).
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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

Painted in 1910, Les Flamants is a rare example of Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau’s renowned jungle paintings, created during the final year of the artist’s life. While Rousseau had first explored the lush, tropical landscape of the jungle in his 1891 composition Surpris! (Tigre dans une tempête tropicale) (Certigny, no. 63; The National Gallery, London), it was not until the opening years of the twentieth century that the subject truly came to dominate his work; over the course of the following decade he would complete almost two dozen compositions devoted to these dramatic, mysterious landscapes, filled with exotic plant life, flowers and animals. Among the artist’s most ambitious compositions, both in scale and subject, these extraordinary wild vistas were essential in cementing Rousseau’s artistic legacy through the twentieth century. From Pablo Picasso to Robert Delaunay, André Breton to Max Ernst, Rousseau’s paintings stood as a standard-bearer for generations of young artists and intellectuals, his singular vision and unwavering faith in his own individuality offering inspiration to those intent on boldly breaking away from tradition.
Le Douanier
Described by Douglas Cooper as “a personality as unique and unclassifiable as any that can be found in the history of art,” Rousseau was born in 1844 in the small French town of Laval (“Henri Rousseau: Artistie-Peintrein The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, July 1944, vol. 85, no. 496, p. 160). The son of a tinsmith, the artist led an ordinary, modest existence for much of his life, completing his schooling before embarking on military service. At the age of 28, he began working for the Parisian customs service known as the Octroi, a position that would later earn him the sobriquet “Le Douanier” (the customs officer) among his peers, though in reality he was a gabelou, a toll collector who spent his days monitoring the passage of goods through the city gates. It was only as he approached the age of 40 that Rousseau appears to have made the momentous decision to pursue his passion for painting, and in 1884 he secured a copyist’s permit, granting him free entrance to the museums of Paris to study the works of the great masters first-hand.
Entirely self-taught, Rousseau devoted his evenings and Sundays to painting, later writing in a short auto-biographical note that he worked “alone and without any master but nature and some advice from Gérôme and Clément” (quoted in D. Vallier, Henri Rousseau, the Douanier, New York, 1979, p. 7). Though he exhibited two paintings at the Salon of 1885, it was at the juryless Salon des Indépendants that he found his natural habitat, making his debut with Un soir de carnaval (Certigny, no. 16; Philadelphia Museum of Art) in 1886, and continuing to submit works nearly every year for the rest of his life. Rousseau’s grand ambitions are evident in his self-portrait of 1890, Moi-même: Portrait-Paysage (Certigny, no. 45; Národni Galerie, Prague) where he cast himself in the role of the archetypal modern avant-garde artist. Sporting a beard and a beret, with his palette and brush clasped in his left hand, Rousseau stands before a contemporary view of Paris, the marine traffic on the Seine meandering past, while the Eiffel Tower is visible over his shoulder. Captured in his own idiosyncratic style, which remained unchanged for much of his career, he portrays himself with a monumentality and gravity that announces him as a serious artist, a chronicler of the modern metropolis and its denizens.
Undeterred by the largely negative reactions from both critics and the public to the initial showings of his work, Rousseau remained steadfast in his style, and at the age of 49 he took early retirement from the Octroi in order to devote himself full-time to his art. Living in a simple apartment in Plaisance, he worked odd jobs to supplement his modest pension, giving lessons in music and art to children from the neighborhood. Though he still worked on ambitious allegorical and historical subjects, the need to earn a living from his paintings led him to take on more portrait commissions, and to produce smaller landscape compositions of the Parisian cityscape. Rather than the grand boulevards and elegant public parks that had captivated the Impressionists, Rousseau trained his eye on the city’s suburbs, depicting the quiet stretches of the capital and the ordinary milieu that was so familiar to him. As Werner Schmalenbach has explained, “Paris was his city. He portrayed it incessantly, not as a great splendid metropolis, but rather in its modest, ‘small-town’ aspects…” (op. cit., pp. 9-10).
While he continued to work in a traditional vein, covering all of the classical genres, Rousseau’s unique vision set him apart from his contemporaries. His single-mindedness and confidence in his own abilities led Rousseau to become a somewhat eccentric figure—in 1895, he proclaimed without irony that he was “in the process of becoming one of our best realist painters,” and seemed oblivious to the disparaging remarks aimed at his work (quoted in D. Vallier, op. cit., 1979, p. 7). He kept a scrapbook of reviews, almost all of them negative, which he diligently added to after each exhibition, and as his notoriety grew, he actively participated in adding to the mythology and mystery surrounding his persona.
The Jungle Paintings
In 1891, Rousseau experienced his first true breakthrough with the public and critics alike, making a splash at the Salon des Indépendants with his inaugural Jungle painting, Surpris! (Tigre dans une tempête tropicale). Caught in a heavy downpour, the powerful, lithe form of a tiger is seen prowling through the verdant undergrowth of an exotic forest, rain lashing down as bolts of lightning streak across the sky. There is a palpable sense of tension within the animal’s body as it makes its way through the tall grass, though who has been caught by surprise remains unclear—the tiger, or the viewer. The work drew the attention of many commentators, such as the artist Edouard Vuillard who, in an article for the Gazette de Lausanne, proclaimed: “This is the alpha and omega of painting, so bewildering that deeply rooted convictions falter and waver before so much self-satisfaction and such great childlikeness. Everybody stops laughing. It is always wonderful to observe a conviction, of whatever sort, given such relentless expression. For my part, I sincerely appreciate these efforts, and prefer them a hundred times to the regrettable mistakes all around” (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., p. 23).
However, it was not until a decade later than the jungle fully re-emerged in Rousseau’s oeuvre, with the 1905 composition Le lion ayant faim (Certigny, no. 153; Fondation Beyeler, Basel), an enormous statement piece that he exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. It was accompanied by a lengthy descriptive title, in which the artist expanded the narrative of the scene: “The lion, being hungry, hurls itself on the antelope [and] devours it; the panther anxiously awaits the moment when she too will have her turn. Carnivorous birds have each torn off a piece of flesh from the underside of the poor animal as it lets fall a tear! Sunset.” (quoted in C. Green, “Souvenirs of the Jardin des Plantes: Making the Exotic Strange Again,” in Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2005, p. 30). While it has been speculated that Rousseau’s return to jungle scenes may have been prompted, in part, by a recent exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, the works that emerged between 1905-1910 were defiantly unique. Le lion ayant faim garnered a great deal of attention at the exhibition, and was reproduced in the popular magazine L’Illustration as part of a two-page spread on the show, placing Rousseau alongside the likes of Paul Cezanne, Vuillard, Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse.
Over the course of the next five years, a steady stream of richly worked, grand jungle paintings emerged from Rousseau’s studio, each piece a study in subtle variation and invention. Built in carefully delineated layers, these paintings conjure an immersive environment, offering a mix of succulents, palm trees, luscious foliage and bright flowers, dense grasses and exotic towering trees, laden with ripe fruit. Animals lurk amid the greenery, moving through the landscape, leisurely playing amid the trees, or caught in a moment of combat, as they catch their prey. In more disturbing scenes, a creature attacks an unfortunate human being who has wandered into this treacherous world, transforming the jungle once more into a wild, untamable place.
Inspiration and Transformation
While some scholars have drawn parallels between the jungle compositions and the paintings of South America created by the Dutch artist Frans Post in the seventeenth century, Rousseau’s unique vision was inherently personal, with each canvas transporting the viewer into an otherworldly land of his own creation. The jungle landscapes were almost entirely imagined dreams of a primordial arcadia—contrary to the proclamations of some of his contemporaries, and indeed some of his own statements, he never ventured beyond the borders of France. Instead, his lush, tropical jungles were inspired by popular culture, drawing motifs from postcards, illustrated journals, dime store novels, encyclopedias, botanical treatises and printed ephemera. As Frances Morris has noted, “Rousseau’s Jungle paintings were dreamscapes, each one the meeting place of a principal idea with a tapestry of images culled from everyday, local sources and experiences, all of which were available to the ordinary people of Paris” (“Jungles in Paris,” in ibid., p. 20).
Among the most important treasuries of source imagery for Rousseau lay in the lavishly illustrated Bêtes sauvages, an album published by the renowned Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette, which the artist kept in his studio and referred back to often. Photographs of various animals were featured alongside in-depth descriptions of their coloring, their natural habitat and the individual characteristics of each species, though Rousseau appears to have rarely paid much heed to such information. At the same time, the artist built up a large collection of cuttings from the illustrated press, keeping images that had caught his eye from both real stories of far-off lands and the fictional serialized tales that captivated French audiences. Using a pantograph to enlarge these illustrations and translate them onto his canvases, Rousseau conjured tropical forests brimming with riotous combinations of flora and fauna.
He supplemented these sources with visits to the Jardin des plantes in Paris, where he studied and sketched live specimens at the zoo, tropical plants in the vast glasshouses of the botanical gardens, and the dramatic staged dioramas of taxidermied animals in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Similarly the two Expositions Universelle held in Paris in 1889 and 1900 provided fascinating glimpses into the life and customs of distant civilizations, feeding Rousseau’s imagination further. Through this multi-layered process of absorption, copying and translation, his paintings became rich assemblages. While individual details and motifs can be traced back to the pages of Bêtes sauvages or a lurid illustration from the cover of Le Petit Journal, Rousseau transformed these motifs into something distinctly his own, imbuing them with a new sense of mystery and allure.
Les Flamants
Along with La Charmeuse de serpents (Certigny, no. 250; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Les Flamants is the only jungle painting in which Rousseau includes a body of fresh water in the composition. Here, a quartet of brightly-hued pink flamingoes gather together on the banks of a wide river, their forms plucked from the pages of Bêtes Sauvages. In the middle distance a sandbank stretches out into the water, three diminutive human figures stationed on the sand as if waiting for an unknown event to occur. Rather than being immersed in the thickets of vegetation, there is an openness to the view, as the landscape is arranged in a series of clearly delineated planes that recede into the distance, ending with a screen of palm trees on the far shore that indicates the edge of the jungle. As a result, Les Flamants showcases the distinct theatricality of Rousseau’s jungle vignettes from the mature period of his career, in which every element is arranged and staged in service of the artist’s grand narrative. However, unlike many of his other jungle compositions, which hinge on a dramatic act of violence or a moment of surprise at their center, there is a sense of peace and calm within the present scene, in which humans and animals exist in quiet harmony.
Among the most striking elements of Les Flamants is the row of large, colorful flowers that spring from the water in the foreground. Balancing on tall, thin stems, these voluptuous blooms tower over the flamingos, appearing all the more enormous in their proximity to the birds. Reminiscent of the organic detailing and soft arabesques of Art Nouveau, these bright pink, yellow and white blooms suggest not only the lush beauty of the tropics, but also the extreme fecundity and power of the jungle. While Rousseau’s visions of such tropical flora were rooted in reality, he did not pay attention to the size nor detailing of the plants as depicted in his original source material, nor the context in which he found them in the botanical gardens. Instead he simplified their forms, granting them a flat, graphic quality, and allowed different plants to combine in unexpected groupings, solely for the purpose of delighting the eye. Such heightened stylization was entirely intentional on Rousseau’s part—as he explained, “…when I walk into these greenhouses and see these strange plants from exotic countries, it seems to me that I am entering a dream,” an impression he seemed eager to replicate in his canvases (quoted in Y. le Pichon, Le Monde du Douanier Rousseau, Paris, 1985, p. 132).
In the first monograph dedicated to Rousseau’s paintings, Wilhelm Uhde praised the power of his process of transformation, in his description of a scene startlingly similar to Les Flamants: “It is not the virgin forest as it is in the botanical or the zoological gardens that he paints, but the virgin forest with its terrors and its beauties of which we dream in childhood, where palm woods stand under the silvered light of the moon beside broad rivers…” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2005, p. 41). By boldly breaking away from the established rules of academic, mimetic art and embracing a highly personal painterly idiom, Rousseau forged a new path for artistic freedom. It was this aspect of Le Douanier’s art, his devotion to his own singular vision, that would prove to have such a profound influence on a new generation of avant-garde painters at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Legacy of Rousseau’s Jungle Paintings
Rousseau’s contribution to the poetry of the modernist idiom was acknowledged in his own time: he had many admirers among the avant-garde artists of his day, including Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso, who proclaimed “Rousseau is not an accident. He represents the perfection of a certain order of thought” (quoted in R. Shattuck, The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, New York, 1955, p. 66). When Le lion ayant faim was accepted to the Salon d’Automne in 1905, it hung not far from the vibrantly colored compositions of Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck. In a review for Gil Blas, the critic Louis Vauxcelles proclaimed the exhibition to be a cage aux fauves (a cage of wild beasts), a comparison perhaps sparked by the proximity of Rousseau’s canvas to the exuberantly hued compositions of this new group of progressive artists. Though not directly associated with the Fauves, Rousseau benefitted from the ensuing press exposure, and was rapidly embraced by a large group of vanguard painters, writers and intellectuals.
Reveling in his new-found notoriety among the Parisian vanguard, Rousseau began to hold exuberant soirées familiales et artistiques in his small apartment. These informal gatherings, which offered a mixture of musical and theatrical entertainment, drew an illustrious crowd of literary and artistic figures, including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Félix Fénéon, Philippe Soupault, Picasso, Braque, Marie Laurencin, Constantin Brancusi, and many more. He enjoyed a particularly close friendship with Delaunay, who became an avid collector and promoter of his paintings during these years, while forward-thinking dealers such as Ambroise Vollard, Joseph Brummer and Wilhelm Uhde began to purchase his work. As for Picasso, he “was beguiled by the intensity of the Douanier’s sense of reality,” John Richardson has explained. “He was also useful to Picasso as an antidote to Cezanne’s sway; he represented the opposite end of the pictorial spectrum. Whereas Rousseau was totally conceptual in approach, Cezanne was totally perceptual” (A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. II, p. 96).
Following Rousseau’s untimely death in 1910, the myth and legend of Le Douanier flourished, and his work continued to fascinate generations of eager young artists, who discovered his paintings through international exhibitions and early publications on his life. In particular, the artist’s fantastical jungle landscapes became an important touchstone for the bourgeoning Surrealist movement, with André Breton later stating: “It is with Rousseau that we can speak for the first time of Magic Realism… of the intervention of magic causality” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2005, p. 24). Using imagery from popular culture to surprising effect, Rousseau was able “to convert the everyday into the unusual, to bring fantasy and extreme precision together in a dialectic tension” (G. Adriani, Rousseau, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Tübingen, 2001, p. 14).
While certain parallels may be detected in the early works of Giorgio de Chirico and Joan Miró, it was perhaps Max Ernst who found the greatest inspiration in Rousseau’s painterly example. In his compositions from the early 1920s, for example, he regularly combined objects in illogical or unexpected relationships, choosing images from magazines and books that were then translated onto the canvas and transformed through unexpected juxtapositions or pairings, to generate a new motif that would surprise and confound the viewer. Channeling Rousseau’s collage-like approach to painting, Ernst sought to strike a balance between the eerie and the humorous, playing with scale and materiality to conjure strange, hybrid objects and unexpected scenes. In the late 1930s, he would build even further on the example of Rousseau, creating a series of paintings depicting lush tropical vegetation, populated by strange, imaginary beasts and insects. These mysterious landscapes, which reflect Ernst’s growing anxiety about the political situation in Europe during these years, appear to be a direct evolution of Rousseau’s jungle compositions, infusing the dense foliage with menacing undertones of danger and fear.
To this day, contemporary artists continue to explore and wrestle with the legacy of Rousseau. For example, in her 2003 work The Untamed in Rousseau Mickalene Thomas issues a bold challenge to the artist’s jungle paintings. Created using her signature material, rhinestones, the work injects a black woman wearing an animal-print leotard into Rousseau’s fantasy worlds, posing questions about representation, race and exoticism in the traditional canon of art history. Working in a different vein that nonetheless echoes Rousseau’s practice, Matthew Wong’s powerfully evocative imagined landscapes immerse the viewer in a fantastical world of the artist’s own making, balancing the familiar with the otherworldly. Like Rousseau, Wong was a self-taught painter—a voracious reader, he devoured books on art, and later used the vast proliferation of media available via the internet to guide his practice. Combining motifs from a variety of different sources, placing them in unexpected dialogue with one another, Wong generated haunting, ethereal landscapes that overflow with an abundance of color and plant-life, recalling the atmosphere of Rousseau’s visionary works.
Les Flamants was most likely purchased directly from the artist by Wilhelm Uhde. An early champion of Rousseau’s art, Uhde counted himself among the painter’s circle of close friends and was with him when he died; he would go on to write the first extensive monograph on the artist’s work, and proved essential in establishing Rousseau’s posthumous legacy. The painting was subsequently bought by Paul and Lotte von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin-based art collectors who amassed an extraordinary group of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works through the 1920s, as well as a number of important early paintings by Picasso. After the couple divorced, Les Flamants remained in Paul's collection, and subsequently passed to his second wife, Elsa, with whom it remained throughout the Second World War.
In 1949, the painting was purchased by the American collectors, Charles S. and Joan Whitney Payson in New York. A member of the renowned Whitney family, Joan led an eccentric life: along with her philanthropic endeavors, she was passionate about horse racing, and was also the majority owner and president of the New York Mets. From a young age she exhibited a keen eye for art, apparently requesting a work by Edgar Degas as a gift for her sixteenth birthday. Joan and her husband assembled a vast collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces over the years, including works by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. Les Flamants passed to their daughter, Payne, who fondly recalled her mother's approach to collecting: “She had her own marvelous taste. Dealers would call her up and say they had something interesting. She would see it, and if she liked it she bought it, if she didn’t, she didn’t. There was nobody around telling her she had to have a well-rounded collection” (“Fortune from a Family's Wall” in. Financial Times, 2 November 2007).

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