Henri Rousseau The Customs Post

Henri Rousseau
The Customs Post c.1890
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London © Courtauld Institute of Art

Although Rousseau’s name has become synonymous with jungle scenes, he was far more prolific as a painter of landscapes. Around 70 of his paintings of Paris and its suburbs survive. Because they were small in scale, he could produce them relatively quickly. Yet they can also be seen as counterpoints to the jungle paintings, balancing the violence and exoticism of faraway lands with the calm cultivated landscapes of France. And while there is often a curious sense of domesticity in Rousseau’s vision of the jungle, his images of Paris are marked by a feeling of the familiar made strange.

The Customs Post c.1890 is of particular importance because it was painted while Rousseau was still employed as a government official, as a clerk responsible for imposing tariffs on goods as they entered the city at checkpoints like this one. The customs posts ringed Paris, and it was this borderland, where city and country met, that Rousseau was drawn to explore in his landscapes. Behind the customs post in this painting are two factory chimneys, given particular prominence in the middle of the canvas.

The detail is typical of Rousseau’s interest in depicting the trappings of modernity. While some artists ignored the innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and others emphasised them to comment on how they transformed everyday life, Rousseau seem to have calmly accepted them as an integral feature of the Paris landscape.

In Ivry Quay c.1907, Rousseau depicts the airship La Patrie, which had only been launched in 1906. At the time, it was the most advanced military aircraft in the world and a source of national pride. Yet rather than gaze in wonder or flee in terror from this technological marvel, the strolling Parisians in Rousseau’s painting barely notice it as it hovers benignly in a peaceful summer sky.