I am dedicating this letter to a nutty old Frenchman because Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) (not Henri — Le Douanier — Rousseau, the primitive painter) was one of the most valuable creative thinkers of all time. This unsettled and often irrational writer had a direct effect on the sentiments that we express today — sentiments that many artists have expressed in these letters.
In 1749 Rousseau entered a competition and won first prize for his answer to the question: Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or improvement of human conduct? Rousseau took the negative stand, contending that man was good by nature and was corrupted by civilization. His essay made him famous. In a way he was a forerunner of what we now call Romanticism. His call was “back to innocence,” and to some degree a “return to nature.” He saw subtle nuances and the influence of landscape, trees, water, birds and other elements of nature on the shifting state of the human soul. Through his insights, painters and writers now began to see a little more joy and a sense of meaning in the natural world. They also saw more clearly a moral law that lay within the human psyche, and an abiding beauty and wisdom in the Earth that now lay before them.
Not only that, but they began to see new potential for creativity and the individual prerogative for it. The human imagination, coupled with appreciative seeing and curious looking, started a journey that continues into our world-view today. In our brushwork, our designs, the storm and stress of our skies, the details of our workings, the power of our paintings, sculptures and writings recreate our world in the way Rousseau pictured them for us. I just felt that, sitting here at my easel in the cold gray light of dawn, I owed the goofy guy a tip of my brush.
PS: “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
Esoterica: Another of Rousseau’s contributions was his doctrine of popular sovereignty. In a day when vassals and fiefs continued to bow to kings, dukes and churchy tyrants, this was a unique idea. It influenced the French Revolution and the desire for freedom and equality in an evolving world. An enlightened and educated individual could now hold the keys to the kingdom. Through gentility and a sacred social contract, greatness might now be achieved by private effort. Sound familiar?
This letter was originally published as “Jean Jacques Rousseau” on December 3, 2004.
“Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy?” (Saul Bellow)