Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Dear Artist,

After that last letter about the staying power of landscape painting, I was overwhelmed with the variety and volume of responses. We chose to publish a small but representative sample. These letters were full of variety, intelligence, and heartfelt feelings. After printing out all of your letters and taking them to bed last night, I found myself stumbling around our home in midnight’s blackness, disoriented, in awe of our remarkable creative community. Thank you for the wonder of this sleeplessness.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

So why am I dedicating this letter to a nutty old Frenchman? It’s 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 stated in those 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.

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?


What is a civilized nation?
by Marie-Pierre Good, Louisville, KY, USA

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been one of my most favorite writers if not the One. I am happy to be reminded of his thoughts on nature and the human spirit. I am a French native. He was telling his countryman to go back toward nature, as to keep going in the direction the world was going was detrimental to the soul. He also said that he felt that it might be too late for the country. What does it mean to be civilized? What is a civilized nation? I came to the conclusion that the most civilized people in the world might very well be the ones a lot of people believe live without our “civilized comfort.”


Other aspects of landscape
by Lynne Foster Fife, Nashville, IN, USA


“Crescent Moon”
Giclee on canvas
by Lynne Foster Fife

My quest has been to represent humanity as a part of nature. It is a part, I believe, of our total landscape here on Earth. Yet somehow when “landscape” is mentioned, we expect vistas, trees, mountains, grasses and not much more. What about the landscape of the face? The spirit? The universe?




The hard road back
by Karas Taylor

Though I personally studied everything I could get my hands on, art for me was put into a special place in my heart to draw out later. How I yearned for that time… later, later. It was not a choice I wanted to make — for my hands longed to paint the voice of my heart. However, those years of not painting were not wasted years. They were spent healing a little girl’s spirit from an invasion that threatened to destroy her very being. At the age of three, I, along with my two brothers were kidnapped at gunpoint and threatened with our lives. So began the long hard road back. I have loved my journey, and though traumatic and painful at times, it taught me to look deeply at things, to see the beauty beneath the surface. To feel compassion and to have faith in the fortitude of the human condition and spirit.


Art and sisterhood
by Liz Nganga, Nairobi, Kenya

I’m a writer committed to promote traditional and contemporary African arts. At the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), held last month, there was one corner that was sizzling with feminine energy. The ZIFF Women’s Panorama, through its array of activities — film screenings of movies on women, by women, or for women, workshops and stage performances — aimed to increase awareness of gender equity and associated issues, giving agency to women as doers rather than as victims or objects. One of the strongest deliveries of these messages was through an art exhibition titled Look into my Soul, a commentary on sisterhood compiled with input from women artists from all over the world. ZIFF had made a call for artistic works that portrayed spiritualism, feminism and culture. Questions arose: Are women all over the world that closely connected? Do the geographical distances, different political and social systems, politics, religious beliefs and even colour, dissimilarize women’s view of specific issues? Can art transgress these borders?


How do you begin?
by Sally Pollard, Weiser, ID, USA

I walk and I see signs of my four-footed and winged neighbors, their footprints crisscrossing with mine. The unseen talk to me through the corn-tassels rattling and the waters rushing. How do I paint this? The constant travels of clouds across the great dome, ever changing. Their shadows defining the sleeping dragons of the hills that ring my valley. I particularly love the slanting rays at the beginning and end of the day, and also the contrast of rush of color against utilitarian farm structures. But how do I define all of this in paint? Is it by the picture frame of my window? Is it by the random collision/confinement of rural expanse on to four sides of a canvas? How in the world does one collate the cone of vision with what I feel about this landscape, how it molds to my boots and grates beneath my feet and caresses my very skin, its ever changing moods? How do you begin to paint landscape?


Good for the soul
by David Tierney-Kanning, Olathe, KS, USA


“Quantity Time”
character design
by David Tierney-Kanning

We were lucky enough to purchase some farmland in the middle of nowhere (the closest town is 7 miles away with a population of about 200). My oldest son, who was about 13 at the time, asked me why in the world would we buy a chunk of raw land with “nothing to do” anywhere nearby. My response seemed a bit corny at the time. I replied that there’s something about standing on the crest of a hill, looking to the horizon, feeling the wind on your face and smelling the sweet smell of freshly turned ground that refreshes your soul. He, of course, looked at me as if I had been drinking heavily.




No souvenir?
by Donald Kruger, Culver City, CA, USA


Descanso Garden – Suiseki Show

I am always suspicious of vanity as motivation, especially in art. As a practitioner of natural stone appreciation, I generate no souvenir to leave behind “for the world” as Van Gogh and others apparently wished to do. An affable pack rat, I merely sift, shift and borrow from Mother Nature’s strewn field of prefab wonders. Anonymously I share with the passing parade these remarkable artifacts, that their balm for psyche and soul be freely absorbed — albeit through a rather lengthy ‘time release,’ I suspect — but always in the hope that a viewer’s initial discovery eventually will be turned to practice, and thus transmitted to others by habit and example. After all, it’s not really the Doors of Perception that artists constantly recreate, but only variations of the welcome mat. Is there greater privilege and legacy than that?

(RG note) I know how you feel. My rationalization is that we creators might just have a little obligation to make our inadequate and peripheral attempts to add more of our own touch to the remarkable environment that we have so generously and mysteriously been given. Is that vanity? Or worship?


Is Romanticism good?
by R.T. Shepherd, Charleston, SC, USA

I would only add that a new essay should be open to the question: Has Romanticism been good for humanity? I would say no, and that Romanticism is at the root of Western inertia and narcissism. Isaiah Berlin delivered a series of lectures on Romanticism, that was later transcribed and printed. It is top-notch stuff, as is all of Berlin.

(RG note) Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was a defender of liberalism and a distinguished practitioner of the history of ideas. One of his best-known essays, The Hedgehog and The Fox, focused on the tension between monist and pluralist visions. The Greek poet Archilochus said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The hedgehog needs only one principle, that which directs its life. The fox, a pluralist, travels many roads, according to the idea that there can be different, equally valid but mutually incompatible concepts of how to live. The roads sometimes do not have much connection. In Tolstoy, whose view of history inspired Berlin to write the essay, he saw a fox who believed in being a hedgehog. Berlin was sometimes accused of extreme individualism. A good overview of the thinking of Isaiah Berlin is at The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library.


Pursuing her dream
by Jennifer Hagedorn, Philippines

I truly look forward to your letters as my hand to hold, your words, the words of a great father and friend. I chanced upon reading that you are giving away free copies of your book — please share with me this gift. Two years ago I finally decided to pursue my dream to be a painter, to accept and to develop the gift. I’ve always known as a child that I wanted to be an artist. And there is that typical story that my wish was not supported. I will not blame. Everything happens the way it should. I admire your website, the way you reach out, your sense of humor, your wisdom and your soul in all that I have read from you. Just a week ago was my first “major” group exhibit wherein I showcased 5 of my works. I say “major” because there was more of an involvement in the preparation on my part. I have joined other group exhibits that showcased 1 or 2 of my paintings. I’m just sharing my milestones and my growth. I want to grow and to learn more. I don’t know what else to say but write in hope that I did read correctly about your book and wish for it to be a dream come true that I can obtain a copy from you.

(RG note) Thanks, Jennifer. My plan was to give a copy of the book to subscribers’ favorite protégés to aid in their development and progress. Several hundred artists have written to make the request on behalf of themselves. As I have the strongest feeling that artists need this book, your copy of The Painter’s Keys is in the mail. Thank you for your friendship. I sincerely hope you get something out of it.


Motorcycle en plein air
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“Triumph in the Highlands”
oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches
by Coulter Watt

I can put my pochade box and all the needed stuff into the saddlebags on my motorcycle and zoom off for an episode of in vivo painting and great fun. The human encounters are so “out there” and fun, too. Anyway, there is another good and fellow lunatic who practices the fine art of motorcycling / plein air painting, Donald Neff whom I met through this web site. Thank you very much! He lives in California and I in Pennsylvania. We joke about being the founding fathers of the Motorcycling Plein Air Society of America and being the only two members! Joke’s on us, but we know the great joys of being in vivo paintbrush in hand.








mixed media on canvas
by Elena Ilku, Vancouver, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Tom Salter who wrote, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau only rediscovered what Lao Tzu and the Buddha realized and gave to the people circa 604-531 B.C.”

And also James Heumann of Juneau, Alaska who wrote, “I love good painting as much as good sex. But ours is a generally solitary endeavor (after all, who the heck wants to sit around and watch us paint) in which we reach out and try to share something with our fellows.”

And also David Wilson who wrote, “In communion with Nature — that is the conscious appreciation of one’s essential unity with ‘it’ — people like M. Rousseau “lost all consciousness of an independent self, all painful memories of the past or anxieties about the future, everything but the sense of being.” (Kenneth Clark).”

And also Dallas Nelson who wrote, “How wonderful to see the/my/our ‘community’ of wonderful (international) artists and their unquenchable love of painting and perceiving. Hats off to us.”




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