Henri Rousseau

From New World Encyclopedia


Henri Julien Félix Rousseau (May 21, 1844 – September 2, 1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naive or Primitive manner. He is also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), after his place of employment. Ridiculed during his life, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.

Rousseau was born in Laval in the Loire Valley. After a brief careers as a law student and soldier, he became a government worker and was promoted to the toll-collector's office in Paris as a tax collector. He retired from his job at the age of 49 to work on his art. Essentially self-taught, he claimed he had "no teacher other than nature."

Using a student grade of paint because of limited finances, Rousseau spent a considerable amount of time on each painting, hence his collected work is not extensive. Rousseau's best-known paintings depict jungle scenes, even though he never saw a jungle. Rousseau's work exerted a large influence on several generations of cutting-edge artists, including Picasso, Henri Matisse, Léger, and the Surrealists.


Photograph of Rousseau with violin in 1902

Rousseau was born into the family of a tinsmith. He worked for a lawyer and studied law, but after being accused of a "small perjury," he sought refuge in the army,"[1] serving for four years, starting in 1863.

With his father's death, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868 to support his widowed mother as a government employee. In 1869, he started a relationship with a cabinetmaker's daughter, Clemence Boitard. In 1871, he was promoted to the toll-collector's office in Paris as a tax collector. He started painting seriously in his early 40, and by age 49 he retired from his job to work on his art.

Rousseau claimed he had "no teacher other than nature," although he admitted he had received "some advice" from two established Academic painters, Félix Auguste-Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Essentially, he was self-taught and is considered to be a naive or primitive painter. Not particularly successful financially, after Rousseau's retirement from the toll collector's office in 1893, he supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and work such as playing a violin in the streets. He also worked briefly at Le petit journal, where he produced a number of its covers.


The Dream, 1910

Rousseau's best known paintings depict jungle scenes, even though he never left France and thus could never have seen a jungle in the real world. Stories spread by admirers that his army service included the French expeditionary force to Mexico are unfounded. However, he had indeed met soldiers during his term of service who had survived the French expedition to Mexico and listened to their stories of the subtropical country they had encountered. His visual inspiration came from illustrated books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of stuffed wild animals. To the critic Arsène Alexandre, he described his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes: "When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream."

Along with his exotic scenes there was a concurrent output of smaller topographical images of the city and its suburbs. He claimed to have invented a new genre, portrait landscape, which he achieved by starting a painting with a landscape view, such as a favorite part of the city, and then depicting a person in the foreground.


A Carnival Evening, 1886
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Rousseau painted in layers—starting with a sky in the background and ending with animals or people in the foreground. He also used innovated brushwork. For example, the rain in Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891), (National Gallery, London), is achieved with thin, light-gray strands of paint slanting across the canvas with a glaze or varnish. The effect was influenced by the artist's "lifelong admiration for the satiny finishes of Bouguereau."

When Rousseau painted jungles, he sometimes used more than 50 varieties of green. Although derived from nature, his foliage is adapted to his artistic needs and is often not recognizable as being made up of particular plants.

He worked on each painting for a considerable length of time and consequently his work is small in number. He also used a student grade of paint due to lack of money. In some paintings, certain areas of over-painting—e.g. foreground foliage—are now badly cracked. This problem, however, is not uncommon in oil painting and can be seen in works by Matisse and Picasso).

Criticism and recognition

Rousseau's flat, seemingly childish style gave him many critics. People often were shocked by his work or ridiculed it. His ingenuousness was extreme, and he was not aware that establishment artists considered him untutored. He always aspired, in vain, to conventional acceptance. Many observers commented that he painted like a child and did not know what he was doing. However, critics today generally consider his work to show sophistication in his particular technique.

The Snake Charmer, 1907
The Football Players, 1908
The Repast of the Lion, 1907

From 1886, he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Indépendants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review, when the young artist Félix Vallotton wrote: "His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it's the alpha and omega of painting."

However, it took more than a decade before Rousseau returned to depicting his vision of jungles. In 1905, a large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse in what is now seen as the first showing of The Fauves, the group of young artists whose works emphasized the imaginative use of deep color over the representational values retained by Impressionism. In 1907, he was commissioned by artist Robert Delaunay's mother, Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay, to paint The Snake Charmer.

When Pablo Picasso happened upon a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over, the younger artist instantly recognized Rousseau's genius and went to meet him. In 1908, Picasso held a half-serious, half-burlesque banquet in his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau's honor.

Rousseau died September 2, 1910 in the Hospital Necker in Paris. Seven friends stood at his grave in the Cimetière de Bagneux: the painters Paul Signac and Otiz de Zarate, Robert Delaunay and his wife SoniaTerk, the sculptor Brancusi, Rousseau's landlord Armand Queval, and Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote the epitaph Brancusi put on the tombstone:

We salute you
Gentile Rousseau you can hear us
Delaunay his wife Monsieur Queval and myself
Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates
of heaven
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light of truth Painting
as you once did my portrait
Facing the stars


Self Portrait, 1908
The Sleeping Gypsy

Rousseau's work exerted a large influence on several generations of important artists, including Picasso, Fernand Léger, Max Beckmann and the Surrealists. His work The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), which shows a lion musing over a sleeping woman in eerie moonlight, is one of the best-known works of the modern era.

In 1911, a retrospective exhibition of Rousseau's works was shown at the Salon des Indépendants. His paintings were also shown at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition.

More recently, a major museum exhibition of his work was held in 1984-1985 (in Paris at the Grand Palais, and in New York at the Museum of Modern Art). Another exhibition was held in 2001, in Tübingen, Germany. These showings received wide critical acclaim and demonstrated that, far from being a naive painter who did not know what he was doing, he was a skilled artist whose techniques influenced several later, better-known painters. Another major exhibition of his work, "Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris," was shown at Tate Modern museum from November, 2005 for four months. The exhibition, encompassing 49 of his paintings, was also on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from July 16, 2006–October 15, 2006. A major collection of Rousseau's work was also shown at The Grand Palais from March 15, 2006 to June 19, 2006.

In popular culture, the cover illustration for Fleetwood Mac's Tango in the Night album is Homage à Henri Rousseau by Brett-Livingstone Strong, based on Rousseau's The Snake Charmer. The science fiction book The Island of Dr.Moreau by H.G.Wells uses Rousseau's The Snake Charmer as its cover. Daniel Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life" also uses this painting as its cover.


  1. Karen Lee Spaulding, Masterworks at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999. ISBN 978155595169

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adriana, Gotz, and Adriani, Gorz. Henri Rousseau. Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780300090550
  • Freches, Claire. Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris. Harry N. Abrams, 2006. ASIN B000SZS6993
  • Pfleger, Susanne. Henri Rousseau: A Jungle Expedition. Prestel Publishing, 1998. ISBN 9783791319872
  • Uhde, Willhelm. Recollections of Henri Rouseau. Pallas Athene, 2006. ISBN 978-843680084

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2017.


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