Henri Rousseau War 1894

Henri Rousseau, War 1894
Musée d’Orsay, Paris © Photo RMN-Droits réservés

Rousseau was a proud Republican, and he painted a number of works that celebrate the glory of France. These paintings, however, were not motivated solely by patriotic zeal. He also hoped that such works would attract the attention of the authorities and enable him to secure a prestigious public commission that would establish his standing as an artist once and for all (as well as paying exceptionally well). The allegorical style of these works, in which the figures personify abstract ideas, was a sign of his ambition: the art establishment tended to value such weighty subjects above genres such as landscape and portraiture.

Rousseau submitted at least three proposals for official commissions. One of them was based on his painting A Centennial of Independence 1892, in which a group of revellers dance around the Liberty Tree to mark the founding of the French Republic in 1792. But his hopes of securing public patronage were never fulfilled.

Rousseau’s political sympathies come to the fore again in The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace 1907. This work depicts an imaginary gathering hosted by Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic. The dignitaries themselves are all based on real figures, including King Edward VII, Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II. This time, it is children representing the colonies who are dancing, celebrating Rousseau’s vision of France as a global power that brings peace and civilisation to the world.

War 1894 is another allegory, which shows that savagery and violence are not confined to the jungle. This vision of a wild maiden of destruction careering across a ruined landscape has been linked to memories of the Franco-Prussian war and the violent repression of the Paris Commune. However, it is striking for its lack of reference to any specific historical incident, and there are no identifiable uniforms or even weaponry among the dead.