‘Portrait of Joseph Brummer’ by Henri Rousseau has been acquired by the National Gallery | London

The National Gallery has been gifted the Portrait of Joseph Brummer by Henri Rousseau as part of the Simon Sainsbury Bequest*. This painting will join the only other work in the Gallery by Rousseau, Surprised!, one of the top 10 most popular paintings in the Gallery online, and the focus of the 2024 Take One Picture programme.

Executed only a few months before the artist’s death, the ‘Portrait of Joseph Brummer’ will be displayed in Room 41 alongside Rousseau’s ‘Surprised!’. These two works will allow the Gallery to describe the arc of Rousseau’s career over two decades, as well as his continued taste for the exotic in the form of carefully examined plant-life at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (Rousseau did not leave France during his life). The painting will also hang alongside other masterpieces from the Simon Sainsbury Bequest, including Claude Monet’s Snow Scene at Argenteuil (the artist’s largest winter landscape) and Water-Lilies, Setting Sun.

Rousseau was a self-taught artist who took up painting while working at the Paris Customs Office. While some ridiculed his work, several avant-garde artists and writers of the time – not least Pablo Picasso – viewed him as an important figure in the development of a more modern form of art. Today, Rousseau is seen as a pioneer of ‘naïve art’, a term used to describe art produced by artists with no formal artistic training. At the beginning of the 20th century these ‘naïve’ artists and artworks were admired because of the link artists and critics made between the childlike simplicity of the works, and the perceived resultant authenticity of expression.

Joseph Brummer (1883–1947) was a Hungarian art dealer and collector and an early supporter of Rousseau, commissioning this portrait shortly after meeting him. The portrait is the culmination of the development of a genre Rousseau termed ‘portrait-paysage’ (portrait/landscape), in which he painted a sitter at full length against a landscape background which was intended as a ‘commentary’ on the sitter’s personality.

Brummer stares down the viewer, his carefully carved facial features and upright posture conveying a statue-like grandeur, perhaps hinting at his initial training as a sculptor under Rodin. The serene atmosphere is enhanced by the regal yellow and red plush wicker chair in which Brummer sits, while a lit cigarette in his hand gives him an air of casual detachment. Brummer was a central figure in the collecting of African and Oceanian art, alongside Gertrude and Leo Stein, and the jungle-like trees and bushes are perhaps a reference to his interest in African art.

Following its appearance in the exhibition After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art, ‘Portrait of Joseph Brummer’ will now take its place in the long history of the European portrait tradition, illustrating the continuing vitality of the genre into the 20th century.

Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, says: ‘It is thrilling to include a legendary Rousseau portrait in the national collection; a vital aspect of the grand portrait tradition from the Renaissance onwards, so well represented here, is now carried with brazen simplicity into the 20th century. We can almost hear the cheers of avant-garde Paris as they echoed through Picasso’s studio at the famous banquet of 1908 where the host, Gertrude Stein and Brummer himself, among many others, celebrated the simple customs clerk who, they understood so well, had altered the course of modern painting.’

Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says: ‘Simon Sainsbury’s bequest to the National Gallery was the generous gesture of a very generous man. The striking ‘Portrait of Jospeh Brummer’ joins the Gallery’s ‘Surprised!’ as one of only six paintings by Rousseau in UK public collections.’

Lisbeth Thalberg
Lisbeth Thalberghttp://lisbeththalberg.wordpress.com
Journalist and artist (photographer). Editor of the art section at MCM. Contact: art (@) martincid (.) com
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