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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Henri Rousseau lived an interesting life and left behind a plethora of highly regarded paintings and drawings. This biography outlines the key moments that helped him to achieve as much as he did.

The son of a carpenter, Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born on 21 May 21 1844, in Laval, France. When he was eight years old, his family went bankrupt and lost their home so Rousseau was left in the care of a boarding school, where he began to love drawing.

Rousseau attended school in Laval until 1860. In his late teens, he was employed at a law firm. However, his career path changed forever when he committed a perjury and was arrested. To evade his jail sentence, Rousseau signed up for the French army in 1863. However, he still had to serve one month’s sentence. Rousseau’s father passed away in 1868 and he was excused from army duties so that he could support his mother.

On leaving the army Rousseau moved to Paris, where he began working as a customs officer at the entrance to the city. It was at this time that Rousseau also married his first wife, Clemence Boitard. After losing several children in infancy, their one surviving offspring Julia lived on in to adulthood. Rousseau’s sole aim was to master an academic style, and he genuinely believed that his pictures were compelling and real. The artist was such a sincere and genuine character, that he took even sarcastic remarks literally and accepted them as praise. His positive outlook helped him endue great poverty. Many contemporary critics regarded his working class background as a drawback.

In 1871, shortly after his first marriage, Rousseau was hired by Paris Octroi where his job was to collect tax on goods coming in to Paris. The job included long stints of free time, which probably gave Rousseau an opportunity to focus on his art. Although no works remain as evidence, it is likely he had drawn and painted since childhood. While working as a customs officer in Paris, Rousseau taught himself to paint and exhibited his work almost every year from 1886 until his death. He earned the moniker “Le Douanier” from his comrades in the Parisian avant-garde.

Rousseau had never had a formal art education; instead, he taught himself by faithfully replicating paintings in the art museums of Paris and by sketching in the city’s botanical gardens and natural history museums. Because he had not studied art according to any prescribed method or under any teacher’s supervision, the artist developed a highly personal style.

His portraits and landscapes often had a childlike or naïve quality. Since he had not learned anatomy or perspective; their vivid colours, ambiguous spaces, non-realistic scale and dramatic intensity gave them a surreal quality. Sometimes Rousseau borrowed details from paintings he had viewed at museums or images he had seen in books and magazines, transforming them into elements of his own visions.

His earliest known works were local views, naïve in both their detail and in their perception. This seemingly direct story telling then led to inventive, imaginative, and dream-like works. However obsessed Rousseau was with exact and particular detail, he was able to control his composition, consolidating what might have been a host of minute and disparate observations into a coherent whole. He worked slowly and carefully, applying many layers of paint and exotic jewel-like colour.

In 1884 Rousseau had begun to copy work in the Louvre. He studied briefly with the academic painter Jean Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1886 Rousseau exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants, where he showed fairly regularly until his death. He supported himself by giving lessons in painting, diction, and music and he was a skilled violinist.

The following year he painted Carnival Evening and A Thunderbolt. Followed by Expectation, A Poor Fellow, After the Feast, Departure, Picnic, The Suicide, For my Father, Myself Self-Portrait, Tiger Chasing Explorers, A Hundred Years of Independence, Liberty, The Last of the 41st, War and some 200 drawings, both pen and ink and pencil, along with some landscapes of Paris.

Many of Rousseau’s signature paintings depicted human figures or wild animals in jungle-like settings such as Tiger in a Tropical Storm of 1891. In each of his paintings there is typically a dramatic event, taking place in the centre, such as a lion attacking its prey. This is in keeping with Rousseau’s preference for grandiose, historical and dramatic narratives within traditional painting.

Although Rousseau’s art was not understood or accepted by the conservative, official art world of Paris, he was able to show his work in annual exhibitions organised by the Société des Artistes Indépendants. He submitted works to these open, un-juried shows from 1886 until the end of his life. His art was seen and appreciated by established artists such as Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac, who praised his direct, emotional approach to his subject matter.

Rousseau’s colleagues at Paris Octroi continued to support his artistic pursuits and in 1893, at the age of 49, Rousseau retired from his work and was able to dedicate himself to his art full-time. That year he met the writer Alfred Jarry, who introduced him to members of the Parisian artistic and literary avant-garde, including Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and Marie Laurencin, all of whom became admirers of his work.

In 1897, Rousseau painted The Sleeping Gypsy. This fantastical depiction of a lion with a sleeping woman on a moonlit night is one of the most recognisable artworks of modern times. In 1898, 10 years after the death of his first wife from Tuberculosis, Rousseau married Josephine Noury. She died just a few years later in 1903, leaving the artist heartbroken.

Rousseau's career then suffered a set back when he was imprisoned for bank fraud in 1907 after a musician acquaintance of his, Louis Savaget, persuaded him to participate in bank fraud. The series of notes he wrote to the judge petitioning for release, which exaggerated his character and his merits, account for some of the most accurate information on the artist in existence today. It is uncertain whether Rousseau was tricked into participating in the fraud or did so willingly. Whatever the case, he used his reputation of being unworldly as his defence. His friends also backed up his claim, which convinced the authorities, and Rousseau was freed from jail.

Finally the innocence and charm of his works won him the admiration of the leading artists. In 1905 he exhibited his large jungle composition The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope along with Henri Matisse at the first showing of Les Fauves. On 2 September 1910, whilst in Paris Rousseau died of blood poisoning that resulted from an infected wound in his leg. A few months before his death, he exhibited his final painting The Dream, the largest of his many jungle paintings. The Dream was later much celebrated by the Surrealists, whose art valued surprising juxtapositions and dream-like moods. It is now considered to be Rousseau’s masterpiece.

Despite his extensive network of connections including many artists and dealers, Rousseau never profited from his paintings. The artist offered The Sleeping Gypsy for sale for 200 francs, but his offer was rejected as the painting was considered “too childish”. Now one of the best-loved examples of poster art, this and other works including The Dream and Carnival Evening influenced many artists who came after him.

His work continued to influence other artists, from his friend Pablo Picasso, to Fernand Léger, Max Ernst and the Surrealists. His paintings are safely held in museum collections all over the world. Picasso hosted a dinner in the painter's honour in 1908, which duly triggered a wave of intellectual interest in the Rousseau's works, and elevated his primitivism to the level of high art.

Ultimately, though, Rousseau’s appeal for Modernists like Picasso lay in the ‘primitive’, untutored nature of his style. “Picasso wanted to draw and paint like a child, and he thought that because of his training at the academy in Spain, he never could,” the French curator Estelle Fresneau explained at the Tate Modern’s Rousseau retrospective in 2005. “So he was impressed by Rousseau because Rousseau’s style was pure. Rousseau never tried what people wanted him to do. Actually, I think that Rousseau was very clever. He was conscious that he was inventing a new way to paint.” Perhaps, then, the father of naive art wasn’t so naive after all.