Rousseau from the Simon Sainsbury bequest

by Alain Chivilò


A bequest is a unique act that is felt by the person who makes it. A desire to share and leave something precious to an institution, to a community, to a nation, remaining in a public sphere. A benefit for current and future generations.

It was the year 2006 when Simon Sainsbury bequeathed Henri Rousseau’s work, “Portrait of Joseph Brummer”, to the National Gallery in his will.

The work becomes the second owned by the National Gallery after the artist’s only present “Surprised!”, oil on canvas highly appreciated and present among the top 10 of the Museum in popularity, as well as having been included in the Take One Picture program 2024.

In Room 41, with works by Claude Monet from the Simon Sainsbury bequest and the same famous tiger bought in 1972, with the aid of a substantial donation from the Hon. Walter H. Annenberg, the “Portrait of Joseph Brummer” found its place further enriching the cultural value of the selected host location.

On an exhibition and historical level, Rousseau’s new work completes the present one (1891), spanning a period of twenty years, consider that the portrait was painted the year before (1909) his death.

Going briefly into the biographies of the men in charge, as highlighted: 

Joseph Brummer (1883–1947) was a Hungarian art dealer and collector and an early supporter of Rousseau, commissioning this portrait shortly after meeting him. The portrait is the culmination of the development of a genre Rousseau termed ‘portrait-paysage’ (portrait/landscape), in which he painted a sitter at full length against a landscape background which was intended as a ‘commentary’ on the sitter’s personality.

Simon Sainsbury (1930-2006) was the great-grandson of John James Sainsbury and his wife Mary Ann Staples, the original founders of Sainsbury’s. He joined the family business in 1956 after training as a chartered accountant. In April 1985, Simon, John and Timothy Sainsbury made the generous offer to build an annexe to the National Gallery’s Wilkins building, bringing almost thirty years of uncertainty over the site to a close. Over the next four years, Simon Sainsbury dedicated a great deal of his time and energy to the project management of this ambitious development. The Sainsbury Wing opened to the public in 1991, the year Simon became a Trustee of the Gallery.

Henri Rousseau (Laval, 21/5/1844 – Parigi, 2/9/1910) first worked as an inspector at a toll station on the outskirts of Paris (1871-85). From this his popular name “le douanier” (the customs officer) is derived. He took seriously to painting after retirement and exhibited from 1886 at the Salon des Indépendants. He is best known for his jungle fantasy pictures. He is also a pioneer and at the same time one of the best painter of naïve art. Rousseau’s expressiveness is direct and authentic, so much so that it always strikes those who look at his works.

Although everything had been planned for a long time, the satisfaction expressed by the National Gallery is very heartfelt and strong. The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, Christopher Riopelle, pointed out how “it is thrilling to include a legendary Rousseau portrait in the national collection; a vital aspect of the grand portrait tradition from the Renaissance onwards, so well represented here, is now carried with brazen simplicity into the 20th century. We can almost hear the cheers of avant-garde Paris as they echoed through Picasso’s studio at the famous banquet of 1908 where the host, Gertrude Stein and Brummer himself, among many others, celebrated the simple customs clerk who, they understood so well, had altered the course of modern painting”. Adding, the Director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi, focused how “Simon Sainsbury’s bequest to the National Gallery was the generous gesture of a very generous man. The striking Portrait of Jospeh Brummer joins the Gallery’s Surprised! As one of only six paintings by Rousseau in UK public collections”.

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Joseph Brummer, 1909, Oil on canvas, 115.9 × 88.3 cm. The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury, 2006. Entered the Collection in 2023. © The National Gallery London.


©AC, NDSL, AM, Alain Chivilo

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