Rousseau seems to have taken up painting seriously when he was in his early forties and still an employee of the municipal customs service. He commented that he had ‘no teacher other than nature’, adding that he had received ‘some advice’ from the Academic painters Félix-Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme. With Clément’s assistance, he registered for an official permit to draw copies of artworks in the Louvre.
Carnival Evening 1886, Promenade in the Forest c.1886 and Rendezvous in the Forest 1889 were among the earliest works that Rousseau exhibited in public. Having been refused entry to the official government Salon exhibition, Rousseau took advantage of the newly established ‘Société des Indépendants’, which was open to all, and submitted Carnival Evening in the summer of 1886. These early paintings were seen by critics as amusingly innocent and lacking technique.
However, all of them have a distinctive atmosphere, their forest settings tinged with enchantment and menace. Each has a theatrical quality, with characters appearing as if on stage, and dominated by the surrounding landscape. In one, a romance unfolds as in a historical drama; in another a lady dressed in her Sunday finery promenades alone in the woods; in the third, a dark-skinned, costumed Pierrot and Colombine appear in a dreamy moonlit forest.