As Jonathon Richman of the proto-punk band the Modern Lovers elegantly put it, “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole” — although the genius’ girlfriend Fernande Olivier must have been sorely tempted in the late summer of 1908, when she learned that Picasso had invited half of Montmartre to their squalid garret and given the food caterer the wrong date. Actually, everything turned out for the best: The resulting “Rousseau Banquet” was a resounding success, an all-night extravaganza whose details have been lovingly told and retold for the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as the symbolic highlight of the Parisian Belle Époque. The key to its success, historians agree, was its giddy spontaneity, a fact that provides an object lesson to many of today’s practicing hosts. As far as we can ascertain, even allowing for nostalgia and self-serving exaggeration in the guests’ memoirs, the event really was a blast. The whole turn-of-the-century era in Paris (from 1885 to 1914) was marked by a “spontaneity of high spirits,” as author Roger Shattuck puts it, “a light opera atmosphere” where artists loved buffoonery, farce, practical jokes, and theatrical gestures. Shattuch dubs the entire period “the Banquet Years.” But of the many wild and crazy artists’ parties in Paris, the Rousseau Banquet best shows how a fortunate combination of personalities, energy and goodwill can magically combust.
The spark was a miraculous discovery. Picasso was then 27 years old and still struggling to make his name as an artist. One morning, he was strolling through the neighborhood when he noticed a large painting by Henri Rousseau protruding from the debris in a junk store — price, five francs. The unimpressed shopkeeper was selling Rousseau’s “modern primitive” work for the cost of the canvas, which he suggested could at least be painted over. Picasso snapped the painting up. It is now known as “Portrait of A Woman” (c. 1895), the full-length image of an unknown woman in a black dress, holding a branch in her hand as a bird flits behind her through the sky. Picasso would later describe it as “one of the most truthful of all French psychological portraits.” Dashing back to his studio, he decided to host a party in Rousseau’s honor.
The elderly artist, who lived nearby, had become popular with the younger generation after years of isolation. He was even an icon of Parisian bohemia, having given up his job as a toll collector more than 20 years earlier, at the age of 41, to devote himself entirely to art despite grinding poverty and ongoing humiliations. (The first two paintings Rousseau ever put on display at the Salon des Indépendents were slashed with knives; ever since, he had been a butt of critics’ jokes). But through financial difficulties and family tragedies, he never lost his child-like innocence or buoyant good cheer.
There are a half-dozen eyewitness reports of the 1908 party — all conflicting — but its most important details can be clearly described.
Scoring an Invitation: The event would unfold in two distinct phases — a sit-down dinner for 30 of Picasso’s closest friends at 8 p.m., where Rousseau would be introduced by the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, followed by an open-house party, starting around 11. If you couldn’t wangle your way into the meal, you could just turn up for the fiesta, no invitation necessary. We know the dinner guest list included up-and-coming artists as Georges Braque, André Salmon, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, and the 21-year-old Marie Laurençin. In the same social circle were Brancusi and Modigliani, although we don’t know whether they attended. While we treat these artists today with a religious reverence, in 1908 they were basically young, broke, and looking for the next good time. They shared a talent for scandalous behavior that made them ideal party guests.
Rounding out the dinner list were a trio of Picasso’s relatively well-to-do American friends, Gertrude and Theo Stein, and Alice B. Toklas.
Party Progress (Phase One): By 6 p.m., many of the dinner invitees had congregated in a corner bar to enjoy the warm evening air with a few aperitifs and listen to a coin-operated electric organ. By 8 p.m., they lurched up the hill to Picasso’s apartment-studio, giggling and singing. (According to Shattuck, star-struck despite himself, their progress was “like a descent of carousing gods.”) Chez Picasso was in the sagging Bateau-Lavoir — an unpromising tenement building painted a gangrenous green, which looked like it should be condemned. This was Paris’ Bohemia Central, the grimy forerunner of Andy Warhol’s New York Factory: Containing 10 artist’s studios, it had been nicknamed “the laundry-boat” by its tenants because the ancient wooden pile creaked and shuddered in high wind like the vessels of washer-women on the Seine. The building was more like a social club than your average Parisian apartment block. There were the round-the-clock comings and goings of painters, sculptor’s actors, and writers, as well as original residents, characters like an ancient picture framer who was introduced to friends as the Minister of Fine Arts. (Located at 13 Rue Ravignan on the Place Émile Goudeau, the building finally burned down in 1970 but was rebuilt in all its decrepitude).
The group burst into Picasso’s studio apartment, which he shared with the feisty French model Fernande Olivier. Their rooms may have had shabby exposed beams and rough wooden floors, but the decor would make the Saatchi Collection look cheap: The walls were covered with Picasso’s latest canvases (he had begun experimenting with Cubism and made a start on his masterpiece, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”) as well as his prize collection of African masks. For the party, Picasso had invested in dozens of Chinese lanterns: Although they posed a terrifying fire hazard and the candles dripped wax on several of the guests, they suffused the room with a warm orange glow and cast enigmatic shadows. A string of wooden planks had been set up on trestles for a table with benches for seats, and the centerpiece, mounted on a stage and surrounded by flags and flowers, was “Portrait of a Woman” hung with a banner, Honneur à Rousseau.
The Menu: It had been late afternoon when Picasso learned that he had screwed up the dates with the caterer, a budget restaurant nearby, and that dinner was not going to arrive. Heroically, Olivier rolled up her sleeves in the kitchen and began to cook a huge batch of riz à la valencienne — Spanish rice with chicken and seafood — while Gertrude Stein wandered local shops looking for cheese, sardines, and other snacks.
No sooner had the guests taken their seats than they were hushed by three knocks at the door: It opened to reveal the elderly Henri Rousseau peering at them shyly. He was a strange vision to the young art crowd: A short and white-haired 64-year-old, he was wearing his artist’s beret and carrying a cane in one hand, violin in the other. His escort, Guillaume Apollinaire, gently pushed the guest of honor forward, and when Rousseau saw the magical room, his face broke into a youthful smile. He gazed around the room with his bright blue eyes sparkling, as delighted as if he had wandered into Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome. A “tremor of emotion” (according to guest Maurice Raynal) ran through the group, which threatened to fall into a self-conscious hush until Rousseau sat under his portrait and raised a glass of wine.
As the rice was served, guests stood to sing songs in Rousseau’s praise and Apollinaire gave an elaborate toast in verse. (His references to the artist’s inspirational memories of Mexico’s “Aztec landscape” gave rise to the odd legend that the jungle-loving Rousseau had visited Central America as a young soldier during France’s ill-fated intervention in the Civil War). Rousseau himself played the violin, including a composition to Clémence, his first wife, whose death had precipitated his choice to begin full-time painting. The crowd ultimately erupted into giddy cries of “Vive Rousseau!”
Party Progress (Phase Two): By midnight, the whole of Montmatre was arriving at Picasso’s door. In the kaleidoscopic chaos, guests have recalled peculiar vignettes. The owner of the Lapin Agile, Fredé, arrived with his famously flatulent donkey Lola. (An artist had once tied a paintbrush to its tail, letting it paint a surprisingly Impressionist-like canvass which was then exhibited under the title “And the Sun Went Down Over the Adriatic,” to great acclaim). Marie Laurençin, blind drunk, flailed about in a dervish dance and then fell on a pile of pastries. The poets Salmon and Cremnitz got into some sort of brawl — although they later said they had faked the DTs, complete with mouths frothing with soap suds, to tease the Steins and Toklas. (The Americans had turned up in formal evening dress that, according to some, had antagonized the more bohemian guests). The owner of the bar down the street, where the party had begun, arrived simply to say that one of the female guests had passed out in his gutter. The painter Ramón Pichot performed “a ritual Spanish dance.” Salmon passed out in a nearby studio on a pile of the women’s hats and coats. Rousseau, happily inebriated, took the young Picasso aside and confided: “Actually, you and I are the two greatest painters; I in the modern genre, you in the Egyptian.” Around 3 a.m., the Steins took the gentle old maestro home; the last of the guests did not leave Picasso’s studio until dawn.
Conversation Tips: Cubism was the cutting-edge topic of the day. Men had to be cautious when chatting to Fernande Olivier, as Picasso was rabidly jealous; he would not allow her to model for any other artist, and sometimes locked her in the studio when he went out. (Actually, it’s quite possible she called Picasso un connard).
The After-Party: There would be many more parties for Picasso and his pals, but for Rousseau, things went downhill from here. The next year, he went on trial for forgery and died in 1910 of blood poisoning after accidentally cutting himself. His own high opinion of his work was finally vindicated after his death, as his reputation blossomed and prices went through the roof. Picasso held onto “Portrait of a Woman” for the rest of his life; it now hangs in the Musée Picasso in Paris and is valued at $100 million. As for the “Rousseau Banquet,” the bickering over what actually happened at the event lasted for decades; Stein and Toklas even alleged that the whole thing was a mockery of Rousseau, who was too simple to get the joke. Of course, these catty artists’ fights kept the party alive in gossip columns and memoirs, guaranteeing its immortality. • 8 July 2008
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: McCully, Marilyn, A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences (Princeton, 1997) James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle.: Gertrude Stein and Company, Shattuck, Roger, The Banquet Years: the Origins of the Avant-garde in France, 1885 to World War I, (New York, 1955).