Henri Rousseau

The Frenchman Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was the greatest modern European primitive painter. His works are infused with fantasy of a naively charming character.

Henri Rousseau was born in Laval on May 21, 1844. At the age of 18 he enlisted in the army, where he played the saxophone in an infantry band. It is usually assumed by biographers, following Rousseau's own account, that he was stationed in Mexico from 1862 to 1866 as part of the French force supporting the emperor Maximilian.

Rousseau left the army in 1866, worked for a while as a clerk in a lawyer's office, and married in 1869. In 1871 he served as a corporal in the army in the Franco-Prussian War. Upon demobilization that year he took a minor position with the customs service (hence he is often called Rousseau le Douanier, "the Customs Officer"), where he remained until his early retirement in 1885.

Given a small pension, Rousseau settled in humble quarters and devoted himself to painting. In 1884 he had begun to copy 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 helped support himself by giving lessons in painting, diction, and music—he was a skilled violinist. Though many ridiculed him, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec admired his work. Rousseau believed himself a great artist: in an autobiographical account of 1895 he wrote that he was becoming "one of France's best realist painters."

Of a generous and trusting nature, Rousseau was well liked by other artists, whom he invited to his soirées, but he was often made the object of practical jokes. In 1908 he was given a party by Pablo Picasso, whom he came to consider as one of the two greatest living painters, the other being himself. Rousseau died in Paris on Sept. 2, 1910, and Constantin Brancusi chiseled on his tombstone a eulogy composed by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

The power of Rousseau's paintings is derived from a remarkable combination of fantasy and actuality. His scenes are grounded in actuality, but even as he has tried to realize the concreteness of each event, they have been transformed into a quaint private world. Neither modeling nor atmospheric perspective, a technique in which objects are blurred to suggest distance from the observer, is used. He depicted weddings and family reunions of friends; cityscapes and landscapes of Paris and its suburbs, like the Village Street (1909); and, most remarkable of all, jungle scenes.

Rousseau's jungle pictures are an amalgamation of memory images of his Mexican trip (if, indeed, he ever was in Mexico), visual experiences from visits to botanical gardens and zoos, and depictions of plants and wild animals he had seen on postcards and in photographs. In the Sleeping Gypsy (1897) a Negress, in a picturesque costume, lies asleep in the midst of a desert with a mandolin and a pitcher beside her. The moon is shining (it echoes in form the curved mandolin), and a lion sniffs curiously at her. The Dream (1910) may be connected with a youthful romance of Rousseau, who had been enamored of a Polish girl named Yadwigah (he wrote a poem to her in connection with this work). A nude woman lies on a couch in the middle of jungle. About her grows lush foliage in which fierce animals, surprisingly tame, lurk. His jungle scenes, though based on real objects and perhaps certain events, in their totality clearly existed only in his mind's eye.


Further Reading on Henri Rousseau

A study that takes into account most previous research on Rousseau is Dora Vallier, Henri Rousseau (1964). Other works on him include Daniel Cotton Rich, Henri Rousseau (1942; rev. ed. 1946), and Jean Bouret, Henri Rousseau (1961). For Rousseau and his times see Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Arts in France, 1885-1918 (1958; rev. ed. 1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Alley, Ronald. Portrait of a primitive: the art of Henri Rousseau, New York: Dutton, 1978.