Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was a French post-impressionist painter. He created some of the most recognizable and imaginative artworks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Born on 21 May 1844 in Laval, France, Rousseau only started painting seriously in his late forties. Before this, he worked as a tax collector. Henri Rousseau’s painting skills were thus entirely self-taught. He didn’t attend the prestigious academies and artist colonies of his post-impressionist counterparts.
Instead, he forged his artistic path, combining Naïve and Primitive approaches with post-impressionist color and emotion. This brief introduction explores Henri Rousseau’s remarkable life, creative inspiration, and important works.
Henri Rousseau is best known as a painter of self-taught genius. But, in addition, he’s celebrated for his sheer breadth of imagination.
However, this wasn’t always the case. Born into the family of a tinsmith, Rousseau worked in the family business as a young man. He attended the local school as a boarder after his family got into debt and had to leave the town of Laval. Reportedly “mediocre” in most subjects, Rousseau nonetheless wore several prizes for music and drawing.
After graduating high school, Rousseau worked as a lawyer. Facing charges for lying under oath, however, he joined the army and served for four years. After his father’s death, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868 to take a job as a government employee.
This government wage allowed Rousseau to support his widowed mother. He also married in the same year (1868) to fifteen-year-old Clémence Boitard. The couple had six children together, but sadly only one survived into adulthood.
In 1871, Rousseau took a job collecting the “octroi” of Paris, which involved taxing goods entering the city. While he was successful in this role, the work didn’t provide inspiration or personal fulfillment.
Henri Rousseau’s inspiration instead came from painting. From 1886 onwards, Rousseau showed his artworks at the Salon des Indépendants. With the slogan “sans jury ni recompense” (without jury nor reward), their exhibitions were incredibly influential for early twentieth-century art.
Although Rousseau’s early paintings often featured in Salon backrooms and awkward positions, they drew interested crowds. Indeed, when Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) appeared in 1891, Rosseau received several positive reviews.
One such write-up (penned by the artist Félix Vallotton) described the Henri Rousseau Tiger as “not to be missed.” Vallotton described this haunting, dramatic artwork as the “alpha and omega of painting.”
The painting first exhibited by Rousseau at the Salon des Indépendants was Carnival Evening (1886). Now considered an artistic masterpiece, it was an impressive work typical of Rousseau’s “naïve” style.
Each aspect of the painting (for instance, the delicate dark branches of the trees) is deliberate and bold. The clouds weigh heavy in the sky, and the characters’ costumes appear in greater detail than their faces.
Nonetheless, the subtlety of Rousseau’s dusky blue sky, with gently sparkling stars and a shining moon, brings an ethereal, dreamlike beauty to the composition. It’s an intensely poetic artwork, achieving a unique atmosphere through sensitive coloring.
In 1893 (aged 49), Rousseau retired as a tax collector. He moved into an artist’s studio in Montparnasse (a creative area in the south of Paris), living and working there until his death.
Henri Rousseau paintings of this era cemented his reputation. Indeed, works such as The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) remain some of the most discussed modern art pieces.
Another important work was The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, shown at the Salon in 1905. Displayed alongside works by younger avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse, it formed part of the new Fauvist movement.
Indeed, many art historians argue that Henri Rousseau’s painting inspired the name of the Fauves. The name translates as “Wild Beasts,” first used by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles. After seeing the 1905 exhibition, he described the contrast between classical sculptures and vivid modern paintings (from the likes of Rousseau and Matisse) as “Donatello chez Les Fauves.”
Ironically, it wasn’t the now iconic Henri Rousseau jungle paintings that made the artist’s name. Instead, it was a Rousseau painting sold on the street as a canvas for painting over.
As chance dictated, however, Pablo Picasso stumbled upon the artwork and instantly saw Rousseau’s genius. Seeking out Rousseau, Picasso held an avant-garde banquet in his honor in 1908. It took place at Picasso’s studio Le Bateau-Lavoir (a building in the Montmartre district of Paris), one of the twentieth century's most significant artistic social events.
Known simply as Le Banquet Rousseau, the event’s fame grew from the esteemed guest list. Diners and revelers included artists such as Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger, the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and the novelist, playwright, and art collector Gertrude Stein. Humorously nicknamed “Le Douanier, the customs officer” (referring to his past employment as a tax collector), the event made Rousseau famous too.
A year later, Rousseau painted one of the attendees (Guillaume Apollinaire) alongside his lover in The Muse Inspiring the Poet (1909).
After Le Banquet Rousseau, the painter found renewed vigor and mainly worked on jungle scenes. While Rousseau never traveled outside France, he saw jungle plants, animals, and landscapes at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition.
With Senegalese, Tonkinese, and Tahitian landscape reproductions on show, this played a significant role in Rousseau’s artistic inspiration. He also studied exotic plants in famous magazine illustrations and in the botanical gardens of Paris.
Indeed, the Jardin des Plates had a large zoological gallery, where Rousseau also studied stuffed versions of exotic animals. Paying testament to this careful observation, works such as Equatorial Jungle (1909) and Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908) render each leaf separately.
While Rousseau’s jungles form abstract patterns, he faithfully portrays botanical details. Realistic (yet vaguely fantastical) birds fly around Rousseau’s forest canopies while mysterious animals ominously stare at the viewer.
Henri Rousseau The Dream (1910) now resides in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In terms of where the painting depicts, it is a product of Rousseau’s imagination. Nonetheless, the jungle and animals featured in The Dream probably arose from the Paris Jardin des Plantes.
Regarding his visits to the zoo and botanical garden, Rousseau described the “strange plants from exotic lands.” He said the atmosphere felt like “entering a dream.” Rousseau described the woman as dreaming of being “transported into the forest” while listening to the enchanting music around her.
Henri Rousseau paintings show his astounding creativity in both composition and artistic techniques. Assuming he had “no teacher other than nature, " Rousseau employed several unconventional painting methods, including applying each color one at a time.
Furthermore, Rousseau “layered” his paintings, adding each element one after the other. For instance, the sky might come first, followed by background items, before finishing with foreground figures and animals. Rousseau often worked from top to bottom, slowly building his dreamlike images.
He also claimed the invention of a new painterly genre, the “portrait landscape.” His paintings featured specific views (such as cities, seascapes, or jungles), with a figure later added to the foreground. Two notable examples are Myself Portrait Landscape (1890) and the eerily ambiguous Boy on the Rocks (1897).
Despite his unique skill and celebrated reputation today, Rousseau’s art often attracted ridicule during his lifetime. Academic painters and critics particularly singled out his work for criticism. Indeed, his flat and childish style often shocked contemporary tastes. Rousseau consequently struggled for “establishment” artistic acceptance.
In later life, Rousseau supplemented his small state pension with part-time jobs (including producing covers for Le Petit Journal) and playing violin on the street. He showed his final painting, The Dream, at the 1910 Salon des Indépendants.
In March of that year, Rousseau entered the Necker Hospital in Paris with gangrene in his leg. Unfortunately, he died from a blood clot after an operation on 2 September 1910.
Several friends, critics, and painters stood at his grave, including Paul Signac, Robert Delaunay, the sculptor Brâncuși (who carved his tombstone), and Guillaume Apollinaire.
Apollinaire penned the epitaph carved by Brâncuși to their friend “Gentle Rousseau.” Then, addressing the artist, they promised to bring “brushes, paints and canvas” through the gates of heaven, so he could still enjoy the sacred “light and truth of painting.”
Shortly after his death, Rousseau’s paintings were rediscovered by leading artistic circles. His work was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911. Wassily Kandinsky also wrote glowingly of Rousseau in his Der Blaue Reiter almanac. Rousseau’s art further influenced leading surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.
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