Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Dear Artist,

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.


“Jean Jacques Rousseau meditating in the park at La Rochecordon, 1770”
oil painting by
Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy (1757-1841)

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.


“Italian Landscape”
composed from studies in the Alps and Italy
oil on canvas by
Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy

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.



oil painting by
Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy

Best regards,


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.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy?” (Saul Bellow)




  1. The mention of Jean Jacques Rousseau is so right and wisetoday because:
    the enless cloudy weather this summer, in Connecticut, and elsewhere, is a guarantee of cold and flu this winter because we need these “get out in the fresh air and sunshine” days, even if we must use sunscreens for safety.

    The soul and the art and body and nature must be mixed correctly but definitely mixed


  2. It is interesting how the topics of these letters coincide with what is currently on my mind just prior to reading them. This morning I had just read long political discussion and banter on a forum. Afterwards I was contemplating just how political everything seems to be. Politics are in our humanity. Starting with our primitive ancestors when someone decided the their little group needed a leader. Isn’t our art about influence? At the simplest level aren’t we attempting to express an emotion or illicit an emotion? Can’t it get much more complicated, also. Philosophy, politics, art…three siblings.

  3. Mary Manning on

    We need more opposites, more revival of the Romantics, and more attention to the goodness in nature and mankind. Politics and religious views seem so dark to me these days. Writing, poetry and painting draw me ever deeper into an alternate world that shuts out the drivel coming out of elected officials and others. I feel a new time coming, if we ever strangle the current climate.

    • Nice comment Mary, but we don’t need or want to bury our heads in the sand – or do we? I keep thinking of Professor Panglos’ last words of advice to Candide after he had seen the horrors of the world: “Tend to your garden!”

  4. Especially poignant now that we’re destroying the nature Rousseau opened our eyes to. But what we civilized people have never quite understood is that we’re still part of that nature, so that in destroying it we are also destroying ourselves.

  5. Beautiful idea beautifully conveyed by Robert. Gauging by the times we live in I would also give credit to those judges of the competition in which Rousseau participated for spotting a brilliant idea and appreciating it. Hard to find such people nowadays when people immediately become hostile to the person they believe is talented and love to promote mediocrity.

  6. Kathryn Taylor on

    Beautiful letter! I agree with Rick’s comments. And, when Mary wrote that “politics and religious views seem dark these days”, my opinion about that, is, that religion is man made. But if you love Beauty in Nature, you’ve got to love God, the Creator of all thst is beautiful in nature. As it’s been said, He is the number one, and best Artist, of us all!

  7. There is undoubtedly a great thirst for an art that celebrates nature and the simple joyous fact of being alive.
    In England the great contemporary exponent of this is David Hockney. I went to the Royal Academy a couple of years ago to see his latest landscape paintings, many of them depicting the (superficially) rather dull countryside of East Yorkshire. The galleries were thronged with crowds of people wandering about with an almost beatific smile on every face, drinking in the beauty they saw in his work and in the world in which we live.
    There is beauty in the ordinary if we only know how to look – and Hockney certainly knows how to look!
    Compare and contrast Hockney’s life-enhancing approach with the life-denying sterility of so-called Conceptual Art with its poverty of ideas and ignorance of human nature .

    • Really magnificent paintings by Danouy. So very much to learn from our forebears. I am continuously astounded by the departure from the norm of 17th and 18th century painters. As I get older I also see more clearly and appreciate the talent and the work and the mastery.

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Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.


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