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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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Art lovers will be familiar with the formal style paintings such by Leonardo Da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh. Another style is evident in work with childlike simplicity known as naïve art. One artist who became famous for this style is Henri Rousseau.

Although he set his sights on becoming a famous academic painter, ironically, Rousseau instead became the complete opposite: a quintessential naïve artist. Largely self-taught, Rousseau developed a style that laid bare his lack of academic training. One-point perspective, the absence of correct proportions and the use of piercing, often unnatural colours resulted in a body of work imbued with mystery and unconventionality. In one of his paintings the bananas are shown growing upside-down and in other paintings he grouped together animals from different continents that would never live side by side in the wild.

Best-known for his lush jungle scenes, Rousseau was inspired by frequent trips to the gardens of Paris. Influenced by a combination of high and low brow sources – academic sculpture, postcards, tabloid illustrations, and trips to the Paris public zoo – Rousseau created modern, unconventional landscapes and portraits. The Surrealists, whose art celebrated the surprising juxtapositions and dreaminess characterised by Rousseau’s work, admired the fantastic, often outrageous imagery that resulted from these influences – most famously, a nude woman reclining on a sofa mysteriously located in a tropical jungle.

Using student quality paint due to limited finances, Rousseau spent a considerable amount of time on each painting, so his collect of work is not extensive. His painting technique was also unique since he applied one layer of paint at a time, creating multiple layers in each piece. He painted each colour one by one – firstly the blues and then the greens and so on – and painted from top to bottom. When Rousseau painted jungles, he sometimes used more than 50 shades of green. Although from nature, his foliage was adapted to suit his artistic needs and is often unrecognisable as a particular plant.

Also the careful blending of brushstrokes that result in a smooth surface is representative of his individualised approach to painting. Another quality of his technique was the use of controlled brush strokes which make each object in the painting appear outlined. Rousseau’s work was characterised by heavy dependence on line, stiff portraiture, wild juxtapositions and flattened perspective from which the Cubists and Surrealists drew heavily. His imagination was central to his work.

Rousseau’s art, although previously ridiculed, had an extensive influence on major artists. It was the genuine feeling and highly decorative quality of his paintings that caught their attention. His unschooled technique and sense of childlike simplicity resonated with the ‘primitivism’ embraced by early-twentieth-century modern artists such as Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, who looked to art forms such as African tribal masks and Russian folk art in their quest to find a more ‘primal’ means of expression. Picasso spotted a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over and purchased it in recognition of his genius.

André Breton, also hailed Rousseau as a ‘proto-Surrealist’ for his art’s absurdist, and metaphysical quality, and use of bright colours and clear outlines, anticipating the compositions of Surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. Endowed with an oddly appealing strangeness that could evoke mystery within the commonplace and the exotic, Rousseau’s oeuvre left an impression imprint on artists of the next generation and beyond.