Henri Rousseau’s “Aztec landscapes”are known to stir his viewers’ imagination thanks to their fascinating strangeness. But who knew that Rousseau also composed songs, piano pieces, compositions for orchestra, and received an award from the Académie littéraire et musicale de France for La Valse à Clémence, a violin piece he wrote as an homage to his deceased first wife?
In March 1908, Pablo Picasso invited Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, and all the regulars of the Bateau Lavoir for a “Banquet Rousseau.” Picasso was 27 at the time and had already painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He also had just unearthed a portrait of Clémence at an antique store. The overly-logical and grotesque simplification of the sitter’s face impressed him and he was compelled to find the artist of this painting, the autodidact and discrete retiree of 64 years old Henri Rousseau.
At the Banquet, the mood was festive, guests drank, ate, and sang. Rousseau pulled out his violin and played the waltzing melody of La Valse à Clémence. It was a moment of glory for the painter who turned out to be, in the eyes of the feverish artists, as talented a composer of music as he was a great painter. Rousseau, after he played the last note, said to his host: “We are the two greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian genre, me in the modern genre.” Guillaume Apollinaire memorialized the evening in a poem:
Le malheur s’acharna sur ta progéniture,
Tu perdis tes enfants et tes femmes aussi
Et tu remarias avec que la peinture
Pour faire tes tableaux, enfants de ton esprit
Nous sommes réunis pour célébrer ta gloire,
Ces vins qu’en ton honneur nous verse Picasso,
Buvons-les, donc, puisque c’est l’heure de les boire
En criant tous en chœur “Vive! Vive Rousseau!
In 1914, Apollinaire paid another tribute to Rousseau, whose work was refused at the Salon Officiel on multiple occasion, despite the fact that today he is celebrated as one of the fathers of modern art: “Few artists have been mocked during their lives as much as Le Douanier has, and few men have displayed as much serenity in the face of the scores of mockeries and coarseness he was subjected to.” We can also imagine that the notes of La Valse à Clémence left their tender melody in the memory of the poet of bruised love. To remember Rousseau’s second passion, music, is a felicitous occasion to honor an artist who, with sincere perseverance and tranquil discretion, simply loved art.