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Great Works

Great Works: Old Junier's Cart (1908) By Henri Rousseau

Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris

This late work by Rousseau was painted just six years before the Great War put an end to such fanciful empty boulevard idlings in the treasured company of a favourite blinkered piebald. It is perhaps a Sunday outing with all the family, a little stiff, if not desolately dutiful, which seems to have paused on its serendipitous journey for our delectation alone. As we stare, we begin to imagine ourselves somewhat akin to a large, pompous man beneath the black hood of his plate camera, demanding complete stillness from his sitters for just as long as it takes. And it may take a while. The whole scene feels oh so languorously timeless...

Rousseau, as almost always, deals in the crisply preposterous. His paintings have a sharp and near tangible quality. They are as minutely contrived as well-oiled bits of gleaming machinery. They are also utterly incredible, endlessly entertaining riffs of sheer fancifulness. They exist to make us laugh at everything that they purport to show: life's non-stop merry-go-round, with all its baboonery and buffoonery.

Take this far too over-burdened cart, for example. The arrangement is excessively tight and formal and, well, dolefully prim, upright and Sunday-bestish. What is more, there are far too many delightfully cardboard representations of the human here in this cart. It is all such a squeeze. Are they riotous vegetal upshootings from its belly?

And are they standing or sitting? Or shaved off at the knee? It scarcely matters. Each one looks delicately cut out against its background, as if freshly wrested from some child's pop-up book. Or perhaps each one was individually painted, and then carefully pasted into position..

Look at that sadly shrunken articulated doll of a girl/woman in her gorgeous white dress. The triangular spread of that dress below the waistband makes for a perfect fit inside the far left corner of the cart. Are her legs those two posts mispositioned a little too far to the right? Is that tiny horizontal band of white that seems to emerge from the topmost point of the white rim of the immense cartwheel the flash of an ankle sock? Perhaps she is younger than we thought. Or older? It is all so dreamily indeterminate. And why is her head so small, so much smaller than that of the woman at her shoulder? They seem so physically distant from each other, these two, and yet they could scarcely be closer.

Visual jokes abound, starting with the floppily maned horse with its slender girly legs. Look at the driver's extravagant mustachios. Their shape seems to rhyme with the parting of his hair, and that same shape is then taken up into the sky, and played with by at least three of the clouds. What is that daintily small and darkly impish image that has wedged itself in the space behind the driver and his be-hatted (and also mustachioed) friend or relative? Is it independent of that boy/man with the white ruff or not? Are those the V lines of the boy/man's armpits or the wings of a bat? And how much of a predator is the large black dog that has positioned itself with such near suicidal care beneath the carriage, and appears to be staring and staring at that miniaturised near version of itself? Can a small dog really be quite that small?

Elsewhere, there is much regular and orderly prettification of nature of a very characteristically Parisian kind. The trees off to the left appear to be growing in rigid unison into near perfect lollipoppy shapes. The four tree trunks beyond are nicely evenly spaced. Nothing blows in to the scene from elsewhere – there is no busy street furniture of any kind, no humans – to interrupt our gently amused, and slightly bemused, reverie. There is no one around at all apart from our small crop of notional Sunday travellers. Even the public highway seems to have been swept clean of fuss and clutter.

About the artist: Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

Henri Rousseau was the son of a tinsmith with little formal education. At just 18 years old he was playing the saxophone in the band of the 52nd Infantry Regiment. After leaving the army in 1871, he got a job with Customs and Excise, from which he retired with a small pension in 1886. Thereafter, he supplemented his income by giving violin lessons to local people. He also set himself up as the most preposterously amateurish of amateur painters. He died of pneumonia.