A woman looks at a painting by French artist Henri Rousseau. All photos: AFP
But a century after he died penniless in Paris, the public has taken Henri Rousseau to their hearts.
An exhibition of his greatest work has become one of the biggest hits of the decade at the Musee d'Orsay — in spite of a sharp dip in tourist numbers in the French capital.
“The Customs Man Rousseau” which closed at the weekend, had nearly 480,000 admissions, the museum said on Wednesday, “one of our greatest successes of the last ten years”.
The most unlikely avant garde hero in art history worked as a toll booth attendant who only started to dabble with oils when he was in his forties.
Rousseau would spend his weekends in the Louvre museum and Paris' botanical gardens and zoo, Le Jardin des Plantes, which inspired his famous jungle and tiger paintings.
Picasso bought several of his naive works and threw a wild bohemian banquet in his honour in 1908, when the hard-drinking Rousseau was 64.
“We are the two greatest painters of the time, you in the Egyptian genre, me in the modern genre,” Rousseau — slightly worse for wear — reportedly told him at the end of the evening.
Despite being championed by Picasso, Kandinsky and Max Ernst, the Montmartre modernist set weren't averse to poking fun at his obvious limitations, or his comic, unflappable personality.
Rousseau never let reality get in the way of a good picture. His flowers and plants may seem startlingly real on the canvas, but many were figments of his imagination.
And “the most exotic of exotic painters” as the poet Apollinaire called him, rarely set foot outside Paris.
His extraordinary African and Indian jungle locations came from penny dreadful magazines about the “dark” continents.
Similarly his landscapes of Algeria were straight from his imagination.
Curator Beatrice Avanzi said that did not stop him being a big influence on naive painters and the surrealists, as well as loved by Paul Gauguin, Robert Delaunay, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
The latter two also helped support him in his final poverty-stricken years.
“Rousseau was certainly a one-off artist, an autodidact, who you could call a 'Sunday painter', but we wanted to show that he was also an artist of his time. So the exhibition is not a classic biographical show,” she told AFP.
The Musee d'Orsay's record entry is for a 2014 show “Van Gogh, the Suicide of Society”, which had nearly 655,000 admissions over a similar four-month period.
The Rousseau show travels to the National Gallery of Prague in the Czech Republic in September where it will run until January 15th.