Tuberculosis was known as the Captain of Death. It was the cause of perhaps 25% of all deaths in Europe in the 1800’s. Tuberculosis was a slow death. It was called “consumption” because the body slowly wasted away: the person would lose weight, the skin would lose its color, and the eyes would be sunken. Tuberculosis starts in the lungs: a persistent cough, painful breathing, chest pain, then fever, night sweats, weight loss, and sometimes coughing up blood. The person would also feel tired and weak, and lose their appetite.
Claude Monet painted Camille Doncieux, his model and first wife, on her deathbed. Tuberculosis was believed to be at least partially responsible for her death. The painting below is Camille Monet on her deathbed. I put this painting in the story to help us get a sense of the sadness and pain brought to so many families by tuberculosis.
Infectious diseases spread more rapidly in the cities. Someone could breathe in the bacteria if they were around someone coughing who had tuberculosis. If their immune system was not strong, they too could be infected. It was more difficult to get a proper diet in the cities. There was no refrigeration. Also thousands became infected and died by drinking contaminated milk. Those who lived in the country could milk their cow and drink it within a day or two, which was fine. But milk could be spoiled by the time it got to the cities, and pasteurization of milk was not common until the early 1900’s.
Scientists and doctors did NOT understand what caused tuberculosis, and they were just beginning to understand how to treat tuberculosis in the late 1800’s. The first antibiotic that could cure it, streptomycin, was not discovered until 1943. Yet even in 2012, 1.3 million people still died worldwide from TB.
In June, 1876, Clemence, age 26, caught a cold, which seems to have been the beginning of her struggle with tuberculosis. She may have fought it off for a while; she may have gotten better; or it may have become latent; I don’t know. But we do know that on May 7, 1888, Henri’s dear Clemence died of tuberculosis in their home at 135 Rue de Sevres, one month before her 38th birthday. Henri was almost 44. They were married almost 18 years and 9 months.
Julia Bernard-Rousseau, Henri’s daughter, said that the lady in the painting, Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain, was her mother, Clemence, Henri’s first wife. It is my understanding that the painting was begun in 1886 and finished in 1890. The scene is in the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where they would sometimes go for a Sunday walk. The branch in the tree above Clemence is cut off, signifying death(?). Her hand is over her heart, signifying passion and feeling(?). She is looking back. It is my personal opinion and maybe my own imagination; but I believe Henri painted his beloved wife in a setting that reminded him of the good times they had together. Clemence is going on alone (in death). She is looking back with longing, emotion and love as she leaves him and the children. It seems like Promenade in the Forest was not listed for sale in the Salon. It is probably because Promenade had special meaning to Henri.
At age 63, looking back on his life, he wrote in a letter (Dec. 19, 1907) that he was “married the first time to a wife I adored, and she likewise, unfortunately she was consumptive . . . .” He wrote, “. . .my poor wife . . . left this earth . . . after twenty years of a pure sacred union living only for each other . . . . Ah yes those twenty years were the happiness of my life . . . .” “I was alone. The great emptiness; especially the two eyes, which I missed so much in my life. Ah! It would have been better if I, too, had left with her.” (from The World of Henri Rousseau, by Yann le Pichon, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, New York: Viking Press, 1982)
He had even composed a waltz entitled “Clemence,”which was published by the Literary and Musical Academy of France.
Wilhem Uhde wrote a booklet entitled Recollections of Henri Rousseau. In it he told of an occasion later in Henri’s life when some visitors were sitting in his apartment watching him paint. Henri turned on his stool and asked the visitors, “Did you notice how my hand was moving?” They said, “Of course, Rousseau. You were filling in that colour with your brush.” Henri replied, “No, no, not I. My dead wife was just here and she guided my hand. Didn’t you see her or hear her? ‘Keep at it, Rousseau,’ she whispered, ‘you’re going to make out all right after all.’ ” I do not know if Henri was speaking of Clemence or of his second wife, Josephine. My personal opinion would be that he was referring to Clemence. Roch Grey (Hélène Oettingen) believed there was no doubt that Henri loved Clemence more than his second wife. I think we can understand the reasoning behind that without being unkind to Josephine. When Josephine died at age 51, Henri had been married to Josephine only 3 1/2 years.
NEXT: The 1889 World’s Fair GO TO PART 12
Enfant de Fleur: Authentic, Unretouched Portrait by Henri Rousseau: GO TO PORTRAIT
Enfant de Fleur/Flower Child: Child Portraits Compared: GO TO CHILD PORTRAITS
Enfant de Fleur: Is Flower Child his granddaughter ? GO TO GRANDDAUGHTER
Enfant de Fleur/Flower Child: Fine Art Investment Opportunity GO TO OPPORTUNITY
Contact Page GO TO CONTACT PAGE
Henri Rousseau: Paintings in Museums Around the World GO TO MUSEUMS
1. The Story of a Man determined to be one of the Greatest Painters in France GO TO PART 1
2. Born in FRANCE|Kings & Castles|Revolution|Napoleon|Victor Hugo GO TO PART 2
3. Henri Rousseau | His Family and Childhood GO TO PART 3
4. Henri Rousseau | SOLDIER BOY GO TO PART 4
6: Henri Rousseau | Sunday Painter | Love and Life in Paris GO TO PART 6
7. Henri Rousseau | Six Children Died / Only Julia Lived Past Age 18. GO TO PART 7
8. Henri Rousseau | Paris Customs Office (The Douanier) | Painting on the Job GO TO PART 8
9. Henri Rousseau | 1884 – not good enough | The French Art Salons GO TO PART 9
10. Henri Rousseau | 1885 Debut | 1886 A Carnival Evening GO TO CHAPTER 10
13. Henri Rousseau | 1891 | Surprised! GO TO PART 13
14. Henri Rousseau | Looking for Love in Paris | 1893 | Moving to Montparnasse GO TO PART 14
15. Henri Rousseau | full-time painter | “War” in 1894 | Julia: “Au revoir, papa” GO TO PART 15
16. Henri Rousseau | Ambroise Vollard – the art dealer GO TO PART 16
17. Henri Rousseau | Alfred Jarry | More on “War”| Paul Gauguin GO to PART 17
18. Henri Rousseau | 1895 Paintings |short Autobiography GO TO PART 18