The Football Players: Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau: The Football Players

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.

  • Painted when Henri Rousseau was 64 years old, two years before the artist’s death
  • Depicts four young men playing what is likely rugby in 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 a wood.

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 theBelle Epoque – ‘beautiful time’ – when society was not beset by war but occupied with leisure activities such as the arts, cafes, and sport 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 The Football Players is in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

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