‘Primitive’ art may on first consideration seem to bear little relevance to a review of naive art. But there is a connection. It was the energy of this primitive stratum of art which nurtured every naive artist of the twentieth century. More significantly, the naive artists were rescued from their obscurity on the crest of a wave of enthusiasm for all things ‘primitive’ and all things ‘wrong’ which had no ties to any specific geographical or chronological framework. The first stirrings of the swell that was to produce that wave of interest had come centuries earlier, during the Age of Romance.
The Renaissance in Europe relied on a scientific system of pictorial representation that remained the sole criterion of the professional artist until the twentieth century. “A mirror that has a flat surface nonetheless contains a true [three-dimensional] picture on this surface. A perfect picture executed on the surface of some flat material should resemble the image in the mirror. Painters, you must therefore think of the mirror’s image as your teacher, your guide to chiaroscuro and your mentor for the correct sizing of each object in the picture”, wrote Leonardo da Vinci. So rejecting everything that had to do with the realm of sensitivity and intuitive insight, the Renaissance artist revered scientific measurement and precision to such an extent that painting was thoroughly enmeshed in a network of mathematical calculations. Art had indeed become a science.
To the Renaissance artist, all other forms of artistic endeavour – prehistoric art, the art of the early inhabitants of Africa and Oceania, the art of the Oriental peoples, even the homely crafts of rustic fellow Europeans – remained outside the limits of what was true art. The whole body of artistic enterprise that had accumulated during the Middle Ages (with all its cathedrals and religious masterpieces) was similarly not to be regarded as true art. No heed was paid to the fact that the medieval artists genuinely did work to a system – their own contemporary system.
The logic went that they were ‘primitive’ because, principally, they did not profess the religion of perspective. Duccio di Buoninsegna, Cimabue and Giotto – great masters of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – were all ‘primitives’ because their paintings did not present a scientifically-proportioned mirror-image of reality.
The Age of Romance marked the beginning of reconciliation with the ‘primitives’, the first steps on a return journey. It was not an end in itself for the young Romantic artists. They rejected the traditional classical subjects of paintings, based on Plutarch’s Lives, demanding that art become more closely related to reality and contemporary life. The critic Auguste Jal wrote in 1824, “I have been a citizen of Athens, of Carthage and of Latium. Today, what I want is France.” All very well, of course, but France would not be France today without the France of yesterday: the past is an intrinsic part of the present.
Henri Rousseau, also called the Douanier Rousseau (Laval, 1844 – Paris, 1910)
Originating from a modest family, born into labour and poverty, nothing predisposed Henri Julien Félix Rousseau to become an artist. In a society where the practice of fine arts almost always belonged, from birth, to an environment favourable for its development, the Douanier Rousseau found in painting his Sunday outlet. After his week’s work, Henri Rousseau gave up his only day off to stimulate his senses with painting and music.
Contrary to alleged stories that he had travelled to Mexico, travel which would have inspired his creative world throughout his life as a painter, Henri Rousseau never left Paris. He borrowed the exotic flora and fauna, the wildlife and the extraordinary colourful plants which fill his paintings, from the Jardin des Plantes, the Jardin d’Acclimatation and from the Natural History Museum in Paris.
Originally a legal clerk in Angers, Henri Rousseau then joined the French army. He left the army in 1868 and after the death of his father he returned to Paris. The following year he married Clémence Boitard with whom he had seven children, only one of which survived to adulthood.
Jean Eve (Somain, 1900 – Louveciennes, 1968)
Like a number of naive painters, most of them in fact, Jean Eve came from a modest background. Maximilien Gauthier in his preface in the catalogue for the famous exhibition The Popular Masters of Reality which took place in 1937, rightly wrote that history: “had ceased to occupy itself exclusively with the great to interest itself in the humble.” Jean Eve was the son of a miner. He became a mechanic and was then employed in the toll collectors’ office like the Douanier Rousseau. His attention to detail, his delicate line and his point of view of nature shows his will to celebrate simplicity and daily happiness. His representations of villages or hamlets are an echo to our joys of yore.
The calm that appears through his canvases underlines the tranquillity and the detachment with which those “recreational” artist painted. Indeed, the naive painters were more worried about their environment than about their hypothetical prosperity. This being so, the utilisation of technique in his painting, such as perspective, made him an artist on the border of the movement.
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