Henri Rousseau said that Cézanne couldn’t draw, which seems a bit unfair when, by the standards of the academy, he couldn’t draw either. But there is certainly a sense in which Rousseau’s inability to draw is different from Cézanne’s. In the first place, it became clear that the wonky faces and rag-doll nudes that critics found inept in Cézanne’s work didn’t constitute the sort of wrong drawing that cut him off from the central tradition of French painting. His radicalism could, itself, be construed as part of that tradition. He even taught people to look afresh at pictures within the tradition. He was in effect an insider.

Rousseau’s case was different. Self-taught, he had been schooled in no tradition and had no authority to rebel against. As he had no contribution to make to its dialectic it is not surprising to find him on a siding in the diagrams that map the history of Modernism. He seems to have seen no conflict between the dominant academic style and his own, and to have taken no position on the differences which separated academic painters from revolutionaries. The painters he most admired – Cabanel, Bouguereau, Gérôme – were academic. ‘If I have preserved my naivety,’ Rousseau wrote at the end of his life, ‘it is because M. Gérôme, who was a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and M. Clément . . . always told me to preserve it.’ Maybe they were humouring him, but Rousseau took it as a confirmation of the worth of what he was doing and of his kinship with the great moderns: ‘moderns’ as defined in the toast he is supposed to have proposed during the 1908 banquet in his honour set up by Picasso and Apollinaire, to the effect that Picasso and he were the two greatest painters of the day – Rousseau in the modern style and Picasso in the Egyptian. If by ‘modern’ Rousseau meant the style of Gérôme and Co, one can see why he might want to apply it to himself. He petitioned the government to buy his work and sent it in to official exhibitions, but acceptance was not swift. The Snake Charmer, from the collection of the couturier Jacques Doucet, was promised to (and accepted by) the Louvre in 1925, 15 years after Rousseau’s death; it entered the collection in 1937. Ten years later the Louvre bought War.

The ‘moderns’ did indeed praise him but, like Gérôme, they treated him as a natural phenomenon, as much a primitive in his way as any African sculptor. There is little evidence, however, to tell us how far Rousseau saw his work as others saw it. Did he knowingly take on the roles others cast him in? Was he humouring them?

Even now it isn’t clear how to describe him. There are pictures in the exhibition at Tate Modern (until 5 February) which bring on the special smile usually reserved for pictures by untaught amateurs, children and the mad. ‘Charming’, ‘delightful’, ‘intriguing’: there are plenty of words of praise to be used, but often in contexts which suggest that you understand things the artists themselves lack the sophistication to appreciate. There is envy too, for this work seems to be free of the weight of art-knowledge which makes originality both desirable and difficult. ‘Preserving naivety’ could, in Rousseau’s case, have meant being aware of its presence and being careful to do nothing about it: rather as one might decide to keep a regional accent. When naive artists show signs of wanting to improve themselves, you tend to agree with Harold Ross, who, finding James Thurber practising his drawing technique, told him to stop, because if he was any good he’d be terrible. Artists themselves may want to keep their innocence for all sorts of reasons: pleasure in detailing facts lost in more sophisticated representations, in making patterns out of things (the flower-beds in the two Rousseau full-length portraits of women in the exhibition are set out in the style of a meadow in a medieval tapestry), and in being able to give equal weight to all protagonists. The matching full-face, full-length portraits in The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace couldn’t have been more even-handed if each had had an agent looking after their publicity.

But if a condescending smile creeps to your lips in front of pictures like these, or the balletic Football Players, or Liberty Inviting Artists to Take Part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, other pictures in the exhibition quickly wipe it off. The Tate show proves that ‘masterpiece’ fits The Snake Charmer (for example) quite as well and unambiguously as it fits many other great late 19th-century paintings.

Rousseau describes how things are rather than how they look, which is sometimes a better way of making a picture. The leaves of his trees are turned towards you. They present the unforeshortened shapes of foliage on a herbarium sheet or in one of the beautifully ordered drawings made by native draughtsmen for nabobs in India. He gives pattern and rhythm to foliage that is confused and tangled in his sources, many of which – dramatic engraved illustrations in travel books and magazines, ethnographic and tourist photographs – are liberally displayed in the Tate exhibition. Also on display are photographs of the greenhouse plants and zoo animals which were Rousseau’s closest approach to live tropical nature. In Rousseau’s jungles each tree, each leaf, each clump of grass stands to attention, paraded for inspection. The tigers and leopards may pounce and maul their prey with the vigour of Delacroix’s, but the paint is neat and smooth, the pose heraldic, the result descriptive not Romantic. The colour is similarly explicit – what is red is red, what green, green. Shading gives form, but nothing could be further from the Fauve use of strong colour, one effect of which is to disrupt – and thus force the viewer to rebuild – the illusion of space.

The conventions Rousseau breaks and his errors of drawing, perspective and proportion demonstrate one kind of ineptitude. On the other hand, his work is not careless. The primitive style makes things both explicit and neat. Clothes, like those in Early Renaissance paintings, are tight-buttoned. Cloaks do not billow and flow but, like trees and foliage, tend to formality and symmetry. There are plenty of fangs sunk in bloody flesh but the surface is without the flurry of strokes that vivifies Romantic pictures of carnivores: Rousseau’s habit was to fill in the canvas area by area like a fresco painter or tapestry-maker. The pleasures of craftsmanlike neatness, which diminished more or less in step with the rising status of the artist as creative genius, found themselves again in Rousseau, as they did in Surrealist painting.

Rousseau gives his Romantic subjects a late showing, much as a theatre might offer an old actor a benefit performance. Paris landscapes didn’t suit him; these paintings are merely quaint. It was only when in his innocence (or maybe ‘innocence’) he tangled with the subject-matter of those other moderns, the academicians he admired, that greatness came upon him.

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