Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Customs Post’

The Customs Post

In an interesting article in Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris (Tate Publishing, 2005), Nancy Ireson argues that “The Customs Post is a particularly interesting picture for, in addition to suggesting that Rousseau saw his careers as complimentary [he was a customs official for much of his life], it also shows how he considered work and leisure to overlap.”

Such a view would have been largely uncontroversial before the Industrial Revolution, mainly because what we now regard as separate spheres were not sharply differentiated then. In fact, leisure as we understand it today was a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution’s valorisation of what Josef Pieper called a world of total work. Leisure became the absence of work and a determination to be temporarily rid of work. That is why Ruskin could write: “Now in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: They must not do too much of it: and they must have a sense of success in it.”

However, we now live in a largely post-industrial world where work and leisure have begun to merge, largely because of technological developments. The rise of email and the smartphone have led inexorably to a blurring of the lines between work and leisure. We work from home and leisure is subsumed into work.

So does this mean that we are now more able to recover the vision that Rousseau set out in The Customs Post? Sadly not. Work and leisure may overlap but it is work that calls the shots. 

What strikes us today, by contrast, is how tolerant Rousseau’s employers were by today’s standards, allowing him the time and space he needed to paint during what we tend to think of as work hours. Efficiency was not the prime virtue. What Rousseau had was what proponents of the Slow Movement call for today: an attitude to time that was not dominated by an industrial mindset. Both jungles and customs posts in Paris escaped what Auden called “the formal logic of the clock.”