Henri Rousseau: The Football Players

The Football Players: Henri Rousseau

The Football Players, a 1908 oil painting by French artist Henri Rousseau shows four young men playing what appears to be rugby in a field cut from a forest. It is located in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

  • Painted when Henri Rousseau was 64 years old, two years before the artist’s death
  • Depicts four young men playing what is likely rugby on a cut-out field
  • A surreal scene where there is clearly not enough space to play the game
  • The man on the left of the canvas appears to be punching the man with the ball
  • The team-mate of the man with the ball runs behind him with arms wide open

An exponent of so-called Naive Art at the turn of the twentieth century, Rousseau was lambasted by critics for his simplistic style. Were it not for his celebrated friendships with the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire, Picasso, and Wassily Kandinsky – all giants of art criticism and art at the time, Rousseau’s art could have languished in anonymity.

We can see in The Football Players some evidence of his simple and eye-catching style. Such as the sudden changes in perspective, as shown by comparing the relative sizes of the tacking player and the player he is tackling. It seems by their sizes they should be a great distance apart. To add to this sense of the bizarre, the scene of the match is transplanted to the setting of woods.

The painting could celebrate the first international rugby match between France and England in 1908 and has all the air of a good-natured competition – a precursor of the Anglo-French Entente of World War I which was a mere six years away. But at the time of painting, France and particularly Paris was experiencing the belle Epoque – a ‘beautiful time’ – when society was not beset by war but occupied with leisure activities such as the arts, cafes, and sports as here.

Rousseau was a douanier or customs official until he became an artist only in his forties. He shows here a keen sense of the theatrical. All but the tackling player mentioned above stare out at the viewer despite the ongoing play and, besides the player catching the ball, the player on the right raises his hand to command the attention of the artist painting the scene and the viewer observing it. The mood is certainly jocular and, because of these theatricalities, perhaps comic.

Henri Rousseau’s unique paintings

Henri Rousseau was a French painter known for his unique and distinctive painting style. His art was characterized by its bold, vibrant colors, flattened perspectives, and dreamlike quality, which earned him the nickname “Le Douanier” or “the customs officer,” a reference to his former occupation.

Rousseau’s paintings often featured lush, tropical landscapes, exotic animals, and imaginative scenes that blended reality with fantasy. His work was inspired by his love of nature and his fascination with the exotic, which he encountered through books, botanical gardens, and the Paris zoo.

One of the hallmarks of Rousseau’s style was his use of vibrant, contrasting colors. He used bold, saturated hues to create a sense of depth and atmosphere in his paintings, often contrasting warm and cool tones to create a sense of balance and harmony.

Another important aspect of Rousseau’s style was his use of flattened, simplified perspectives. He often placed figures and objects in the foreground of his paintings, while the background receded into a flattened, two-dimensional space. This technique gave his paintings a sense of flatness and abstraction, which was unusual for his time.

Rousseau was also known for his use of pattern and repetition in his paintings. He often repeated shapes and motifs throughout his works, creating a sense of rhythm and harmony. He also used decorative patterns, such as foliage and foliage-like shapes, to fill the space and create a sense of unity.

Rousseau’s style was not always well-received by contemporary critics, who often dismissed his work as amateurish or childlike. However, his work was championed by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, who saw in his paintings a sense of freedom and playfulness that was lacking in the art of their time.

Today, Rousseau is recognized as a pioneer of modern art and one of the most important painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His bold use of color and flattened perspective influenced many artists who followed him, including the Fauvists and the Surrealists.

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