Self-taught naive artist Rousseau’s flamingo painting set to break auction record with a US$20m estimate

French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau is best known for his naïve or primitive style. As a self-taught artist, he spent most of his life as a customs officer and did not go through academic training in any art institutions. Although people of the painting establishment ridiculed his artistic style, Rousseau developed his own style and exerted an extensive influence on several generations of avant-garde artists.

While many of his famous works depict exotic jungle scenes, Rousseau never left France. On 11 May, a prime example of his sought-after jungle series is poised to take the spotlight at Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale. Les Flamants (1910), created in the artist’s final year, is estimated at US$20 - 30 million. It is set to break the artist’s current auction record as the house has secured it with a third-party guarantee.

Lot 34A | Henri Rousseau | Les Flamants, Oil on canvas
Created in 1910
113.8 x 162 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Wilhelm Uhde, Paris (probably acquired from the artist, 1910, until at least 1912)
  • Paul and Charlotte (Lotte) von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin (by 1926)
  • Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin (1927)
  • Elsa von Kesselstatt, Vaduz (by descent from the above, 1935)
  • M. Knoedler & Co., Inc. and Rudolf Heinemann, New York (acquired from the above through Walter Feilchenfeldt, Zurich, 2 September 1949)
  • Charles S. and Joan Whitney Payson, New York (acquired from the above, October 1949)
  • By descent from the above to the late owner
  • Payne Whitney Middleton (inherited from the above)

Estimate: US$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale
Date: 11 May 2023

Rousseau was born in 1844 in the small French town of Laval into the family of a tinsmith. He was forced to work there as a small boy. His father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. The artist led an ordinary, modest existence for much of his life, completing his schooling before embarking on military service.

At the age of 28, he began working for the Parisian customs service known as the Octroi, a position that would later earn him the sobriquet “Le Douanier” (the customs officer) among his peers. He was a toll collector who spent his days monitoring the passage of goods through the city gates.

Rousseau spent most of his life as a customs officer

Henri Rousseau | Surpris | The National Gallery, London

Henri Rousseau | Tropical Forest with Monkeys | National Gallery Art, Washington

By 49, he took early retirement in order to devote himself full-time to his art. Rousseau moved to a studio in Montparnasse where he lived and worked until his death in 1910. He worked odd jobs to supplement his modest pension, giving lessons in music and art to children from the neighbourhood.

Separated from Paris’s artistic establishment, he taught himself to paint and devised his own methods of creation that were a far cry from the academic traditions of mimetic painting.

Henri Rousseau | The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope|Fondation Beyeler

The present Jardin des Plantes in Paris

A photograph of Jardin des Plantes in 1906

Rousseau said, ‘When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream. I feel that I’m somebody else completely.’

How did Rousseau create his well-known jungle series when he actually never travelled outside France? In fact, the sources for his plants and animals came from postcards, illustrated journals, dime store novels, encyclopaedias, botanical treatises and printed ephemera. Using a pantograph to enlarge these illustrations and translating them onto his canvases, Rousseau conjured entirely imagined arcadias.

He also visited Jardin des plantes and put together what he saw with his wild imagination. He is also said to have met soldiers who had survived the French expedition to Mexico (1862-1865) in support of Emperor Maximilian, and he listened with fascination to their recollections.

Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir are among Rousseau’s contemporaries. While he continued to work in a traditional vein, covering all of the classical genres, Rousseau’s unique vision set him apart from his contemporaries. His single-mindedness and confidence in his own abilities led Rousseau to become a somewhat eccentric figure.

Henri Rousseau | The Dream | Museum of Modern Art

The Dream (partial)

The Dream (partial)

Rousseau had many admirers among the avant-garde artists of his day, including Robert Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Braque, and Pablo Picasso, who proclaimed “Rousseau is not an accident.”

It is said that Pablo Picasso found one of Rousseau’s paintings being sold as a piece of used canvas, and he immediately admired the work. They became good friends over the years and supporters of each other’s work. In 1908, Picasso decided to honour his friend with a banquet with many influential people invited.

Pablo Picasso in his studio circa 1932, with Henri Rousseau’s Portrait de femme (1895) in the background

Les Flamants to be offered in the upcoming Christie’s auction

Les Flamants (partial)

Les Flamants is the only jungle painting in which Rousseau includes a body of fresh water in the composition. Here, a quartet of brightly-hued pink flamingoes gather together on the banks of a wide river. In the middle distance a sandbank stretches out into the water, three diminutive human figures stationed on the sand as if waiting for an unknown event to occur.

Unlike many of his other jungle compositions, which hinge on a dramatic act of violence or a moment of surprise at their center, there is a sense of peace and calm within the present scene, in which humans and animals exist in quiet harmony.

Rousseau was believed to have created fewer than 240 oil paintings in his lifetime. Many of his works are now in the collection of public institutions. Privately owned works with a provenance that goes back to the artist are even rarer.

The current auction record for Rousseau was set in 1993 when Portrait of Joseph Brummer was sold at Christie’s London for £2.97 million (about US$4.4 million). This record will soon be shattered by Les Flamants, estimated at US$20 - 30 million, and is guaranteed to sell. Let’s keep an eye out for the final price sold at Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale on 11 May.

Portrait of Joseph Brummer by Henri Rousseau was sold for £2.97 million at Christie’s London in 1993