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Henri Rousseau

French Painter

Henri Rousseau Photo
Born: May 21, 1844
Laval, France
Died: September 2, 1910
Paris, France
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When I step into the hothouses and see the plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am in a dream.
Henri Rousseau Signature

Summary of Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau became a full-time artist at the age of forty-nine, after retiring from his post at the Paris customs office - a job that prompted his famous nickname, "Le Douanier Rousseau," "the toll collector." Although an admirer of artists such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Leon Gerome, the self-taught Rousseau became the archetypal naïve artist. His amateurish technique and unusual compositions provoked the derision of contemporary critics, while earning the respect and admiration of modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky for revealing "the new possibilities of simplicity." Rousseau's best-known works are lush jungle scenes, inspired not by any firsthand experiences of such locales (the artist reportedly never left France), but by frequent trips to the Paris gardens and zoo.

Key Ideas

Biography of Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau Photo

Henri Julien Felix Rousseau grew up amid humble circumstances in Laval, a small town in northwestern France. His father, a metalsmith, had long-term financial difficulties, amassing enough debt to result in the seizure of the family house in 1851. Subsequently, the young Henri enrolled as a boarding student at Laval High School, which he attended until 1860. He was an average student, aside from receiving distinctions in music and drawing.

Important Art by Henri Rousseau

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

Here, Rousseau captures the height of greatness to which he aspired as a painter, presenting himself in outsized scale with brush and palette in hand and wearing a suit and traditional artist's beret, before a landscape that features the Eiffel Tower and a tall-masted ship decorated with world flags. Although he completed the portrait in 1890, Rousseau subsequently updated the work with additional autobiographical details: a ribbon of the order of academic distinction, which he added to the lapel in 1901, after becoming a drawing teacher at the Association Philotechnique, and the names of his two wives, Clemence and Josephine, which he later painted on the palette. Rousseau's ambitions to become a noted academic painter are also evoked in the subtitle of this work, which announces a new hybrid genre - the "portrait-landscape." A contemporary critic mocked Rousseau's self-aggrandizing portrayal in this work, writing, "I found it extremely difficult to come to terms with Monsieur Henri Rousseau whom I shall call, if I may, the sensation at the Indépendants. M. Rousseau is bent on renewing the art of painting. The Portrait-Landscape is his own invention and I would advise him to take out a patent on it, as unscrupulous characters are quite capable of using it." Rousseau proudly responded in turn, "I am the inventor of the portrait landscape, as the press has pointed out."

Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891)

Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891)

In this, Rousseau's first jungle painting, a wide-eyed, tooth-bearing tiger suddenly emerges from the grass, where it has been lurking, with the waving fronds, slanting branches, rain, and dark sky indicating the storm cited in the title. The canvas was also known as "Tigers Pursuing Explorers" and "Storm in the Jungle," alternate monikers suggesting some ambiguity as to its subject matter. Exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, this jungle scene - a theme often treated by academic artists - was ridiculed by many critics for its evident amateurish quality. Yet, for the painter and critic Felix Vallotton, the work was a " 'must-see'... the alpha and omega of painting and so disconcerting that, before so much competency and childish naivete, the most deeply rooted convictions are held up and questioned." Vallotton's description suggests the reasons Rousseau would be so highly acclaimed among modern artists of the early-20th century and later.

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

This painting's departure from Rousseau's usual subject matter led many to declare it a forgery, some even attributing it to André Derain. The moonlit scene takes place in a desert, where a female gypsy sleeps with a mandolin and jug by her side, untroubled and - amazingly - unharmed by a curious lion. The strangeness of the scene is enhanced by the precariously sloping plane and presentation of the animal and gypsy as if below the viewer's perspective. The gypsy is dressed in Eastern garb, while the painting as a whole recalls the stories from Arabian Nights, which had been translated into several unabridged versions starting in the mid-1880s. In an attempt to sell the piece to his hometown, Rousseau sent the following description to the Mayor of Laval: "A wandering negress, a mandolin player, sleeps in deep exhaustion, her jug beside her. A lion happens to pass that way and sniffs at her but does not devour her." For its eerie, meditative beauty and image of humankind's harmony with the animal kingdom, The Sleeping Gypsy has attained iconic status. It has been altered or parodied by various artists (with the lion often replaced by a dog or other animal).

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Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Henri Rousseau Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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