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Artists Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau

French Painter

Movement: Post-Impressionism

Born: May 21, 1844 - Laval, France

Died: September 2, 1910 - Paris, France

Quotes

"I always see a painting before executing it."
Henri Rousseau
"Nothing makes me happier than to contemplate nature and to paint it. Would you believe that when I go out in the country and see all that sun, all that greenery and all those flowers, I sometimes say to myself: All that belongs to me, it does!"
Henri Rousseau

"When I step into the hothouses and see the plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am in a dream."

Synopsis

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

Although he had ambitions to become a famous academic painter, Rousseau instead became the virtual opposite: the quintessential "naïve" artist. Largely self-taught, Rousseau developed a style that evidenced his lack of academic training, with its absence of correct proportions, one-point perspective, and use of sharp, often unnatural colors. Such features resulted in a body of work imbued with a sense of mystery and eccentricity.
The untutored and idiosyncratic character of Rousseau's art was derided by many early viewers of his work, with one Parisian journalist memorably writing that "Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet with his eyes closed." Yet this quality resonated with modern artists such as Picasso, who saw in Rousseau's work a model for the sincerity and directness to which they aspired in their own work, by drawing inspiration from African tribal masks and other "primitive" and traditional art forms.
Influenced by a combination of "high" and "low" sources - academic sculpture, postcards, tabloid illustrations, and trips to the Paris public zoo and gardens - Rousseau created modern, unconventional renderings of traditional genres such as landscape, portraiture, and allegory. The fantastic, often outrageous imagery that resulted from these hybrid influences - most famously, a nude woman reclining on a divan mysteriously located in a tropical jungle - was celebrated by the Surrealists, whose art valued surprising juxtapositions and dream-like moods characteristic of Rousseau's work.

Most Important Art

The Dream (1910)
The Dream is an apt title for the present work, with its surreal depiction of a nude woman reclining on a sofa in a forest. The woman is surrounded by colorful, painstakingly depicted greenery - which reportedly included at least twenty-two shades of green - and inhabitants of the jungle, including several wide-eyed lions who gaze at the strange scene or at the viewer. This image of a humorously out-of-place academic-style nude - reminiscent of neoclassical odalisques portrayed by artists such as Ingres and perhaps modeled on a Polish woman Rousseau once loved - in an exotic setting far from the artist's native France may be seen as Rousseau's response to late 19th century French colonialist expansion to lands he experienced only through his visits to museums and visual media like magazines and postcards. With its incredible attention to detail, vibrant palette, and absurdist combination of imagery, The Dream reveals why Rousseau's art was so admired by the Surrealists, especially the movement's founder, André Breton, who wrote, "It is with Rousseau that we can speak for the first time of Magic Realism."

In his accompanying caption, one of the many poetic descriptions he often appended to his paintings, Rousseau described it thus:

Yadwigha, in a beautiful dream
Having fallen asleep softly
Heard the sound of a musette
Played by a kindly charmer
While the moon shone down
Upon the flowers, upon the verdant trees
The wild serpents lent their ear
To the merry tunes of the instrument.

The painting captivated the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote, "The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year."
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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Biography

Childhood

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.

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Early Training

The family moved to Angers in 1861, where Rousseau found a job as a clerk for the local bailiff. He managed to avoid the military draft by drawing lots, but ended up serving in the 51st infantry regiment to avoid scandal after his employer accused him of theft. His seven years of active duty passed uneventfully in France, but Rousseau often embellished accounts of his military feats. One of his fabricated adventures involved helping to stem the uprising against Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, where he would ostensibly have been exposed to the jungle life that inspired his later paintings.

Henri Rousseau Biography

Rousseau married his first wife, Clemence Boitard, in 1868. Of their several children, only a daughter, Julia, survived into adulthood. After leaving the regiment he took a job checking goods for the toll authority, which gained him the lifelong nickname of "Le Douanier." During his tenure there, Rousseau completed his first drawings and paintings. The beginnings of his career as an artist are uncertain, but he claimed that he began to paint at the age of forty (1884), which corresponds to the time that he obtained a license to make copies of paintings at the Louvre. His job as a customs officer required only occasional periods of diligence, and it is possible that Rousseau was able to practice drawing during slow periods at work.

Surprisingly, Rousseau expressed the greatest admiration for painters such as Jean-Leon Gerome and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and strove for recognition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Having been rejected from the Salon, however, he exhibited for the first time with the Groupe des Indépendants in 1885. The two paintings chosen for the show illustrate his vacillation between tradition and modernity: Italian Dance depicts a subject popularized by academic painters, while the other, Sunset, handles a theme favored by the Impressionists. In the following year, the Groupe des Indépendants established its own Salon, in which Rousseau participated nearly every year until his death. The first Salon des Indépendants featured Carnival Evening(1886), an early painting that already exhibited the odd, dreamlike quality and compositional arrangement of Rousseau's mature style. Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891), the first of his well-known jungle paintings, was exhibited at the Indépendants in 1891. Contrary to Rousseau's accounts of these works, they were most likely inspired by trips to the Paris Jardin des Plantes and the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle.

Mature Period

In 1889, Rousseau traveled to Paris for the World's Fair, which inspired him to write a play about the experience. The fair was also incorporated into the background of the painting Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890), which was received by critics with mockery and sarcasm.

Taking early retirement from the customs office in 1893, Rousseau became a full-time painter. War (1894), exhibited at that year's Independants, marked a turning point in his career. The large-scale allegorical painting garnered him his only positive review to date in the journal Mercure de France. It also attracted the attention of the poet and writer Alfred Jarry, who published a lithograph of War in his magazine. Rousseau executed a portrait of Jarry in 1895, which was later destroyed by Jarry himself for the novelty of ruining his own image.

In 1898, ten years after the death of his first wife, Rousseau married Josephine Noury, a widow. Continuing to seek acclaim, he entered two competitions between 1898 and 1900 to paint the town halls of Vincennes and Asnieres, respectively, but failed to win either. Through commentary from the press, however, he came to realize that he had gained a degree of notoriety with his jungle paintings, and returned to the subject with Scouts Attacked by the Tiger in 1904. Its inclusion at the Indépendants prompted numerous reviews, thrusting Rousseau back into the public eye.

It was around this time that the younger generation of artists discovered Rousseau, whose work seemed closely related to the "primitive" art that was becoming popular among many members of the avant-garde. He quickly made friends with a number of these artists, including Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Robert Delaunay. In 1906, Rousseau met Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector and critic who was instrumental in promoting his work during the last years of his life. Rousseau's career suffered a setback, however, when he was imprisoned for bank fraud in 1907. 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.

Late Years and Death

Uhde organized Rousseau's first, though unsuccessful, solo exhibition in 1908. In the same year, Pablo Picasso purchased Rousseau's Portrait of a Woman (1895) that he found in a secondhand shop. To celebrate his acquisition, Picasso hosted a now-legendary party that inspired colorful written accounts by many of the guests, including Gertrude Stein. As the guest of honor, Rousseau sat in a throne improvised from a chair raised onto a packing crate, and even added to the entertainment by playing a waltz he had written and named for his first wife. In spite of his popularity among his fellow artists, Rousseau continued to be seen as a figure of amusement in the art world, and lived in poverty for the rest of his life. He died in 1910, suffering from an infected leg wound and despondent over the rejection of his romantic overtures by Leonie, a shop assistant.

Legacy

Henri Rousseau Photo

Rousseau's friends and fellow artists played an important role in promoting his legacy immediately after his death. The artist Max Weber introduced Rousseau's work to American audiences with a New York exhibition in 1910, followed by a memorial exhibition organized by Robert Delaunay at the Salon des Indépendants the following year. Uhde also published the first biography on Rousseau, which made a profound impression on Wassily Kandinsky, who later purchased two of Rousseau's paintings and included reproductions of his work in the Blaue Reiter Almanac(1912).

Endowed with an oddly appealing strangeness that could evoke mystery within the commonplace and the exotic, Rousseau's oeuvre left an indelible imprint on artists of the next generation and beyond. His work's unschooled technique and sense of childlike simplicity resonated with the "primitivism" embraced by early-twentieth-century modern artists such as Picasso and Kandinsky, who looked to art forms such as African tribal masks and Russian folk art in their search for a more "primal" means of expression. Rousseau was also hailed as a "proto-Surrealist" by André Breton, for his art's dream-like, absurdist, and metaphysical quality, and use of bright colors and clear outlines, anticipating the oeuvres of Surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Henri Rousseau
Interactive chart with Henri Rousseau's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Leon Bonnat
Felix Clement
Jean-Leon Gerome

Friends

Guillaume Apollinaire
Alfred Jarry
Wilhelm Uhde

Movements

African Art
Impressionism
Symbolism
Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau
Years Worked: 1884 - 1910

Artists

Max Ernst
Paul Gauguin
Joan Miró

Friends

Fernand Léger
Pablo Picasso

Movements

Fauvism
Naïve Art
Surrealism

Original content written by Tracee Ng

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Henri Rousseau

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Henri Rousseau

By Dora Vallier

paintings
Rousseau

By Cornelia Stabenow

Henri Rousseau

By Philippe Buttner, Christopher Green, Franz Hohler

The Man Without Guile

By Jonathon Keats
Art & Antiques
September 2010

Henri Rousseau: In Imaginary Jungles, a Terrible Beauty Lurks

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
July 14, 2006

When Henri Met Pablo

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
October 28, 2005

Noble Savage: Analyzing the Work of Henri Rousseau

By Richard Shone
ArtForum
January 2001

in pop culture
The Simpsons - Episode #222

The art-inspired episode features a work by Rousseau

William-Adolphe Bouguereau
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a French Academic painter. Bouguereau won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1850. His most famous painting is his 1879 canvas, 'The Birth of Venus.' His work was later derided by the Impressionists, who found his artistic style dated.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Jean-Leon Gerome
Jean-Leon Gerome
Jean-Leon Gerome
Jean-Leon Gerome was a French Academic painter and sculptor. In 1856, he visited Egypt for the first time, which marked a shift in his work towrads orientalist paintings, which depiced Arab religion, genre scenes and North African landscapes. In 1865, Gerome was elected a member of the Institut de France.
Jean-Leon Gerome
Naïve Art
Naïve Art
Naïve Art
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive,', or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
Naïve Art
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
ArtStory: Pablo Picasso
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Wassily Kandinsky
Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism
Impressionism
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
ArtStory: Impressionism
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
ArtStory: Georges Braque
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire
Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer and art critic who in the early twentieth century was a member of the avant-garde group of artists based in the Montparnasse community of Paris, which included Picasso, André Breton and Henri Rousseau. He is credited with coining the term "Surrealism."
Guillaume Apollinaire
Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay
Robert Delaunay was a French avant-garde painter. Early in his career he was associated with the Expressionist group The Blue Rider along with Kandinsky and Klee. Delaunay's singular style is referred to as Orphism; an approach that combines visual elements of Cubism, Expressionism and figurative abstraction.
Robert Delaunay
Max Weber
Max Weber
Max Weber
Max Weber was an early twentieth century Polish-American painter. Taught in the tradition of the French modernists, such as Matisse, Rousseau and Picasso, Weber became a fairly well-known Cubist painter in pre-WWII America, arguably introducing the painterly style to the U.S. Weber's works were among the first acquisitions made by MoMA in 1929, and he was the subject of the museum's very first solo exhibition by an American artist.
Max Weber
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: André Breton
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. His beautiful and troubling images of bowler-hatted men and nature scenes are popular in art and general circles.
ArtStory: Rene Magritte
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico was a Greek-Italian painter and sculptor commonly associated with Surrealism. Initially discovered by Picasso and Apollinaire in France, de Chirico's best known Surrealist paintings incorporated metaphysical subject matter and sculptural still-life. Instead of land- or cityscapes, de Chirico's art is more emblematic of a dreamscape.
ArtStory: Giorgio de Chirico
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
ArtStory: Post-Impressionism
Leon Bonnat
Leon Bonnat
Leon Bonnat
Leon Bonnat was a French painter and academic. He won a medal of honor in Paris in 1869, making him one of the leading artists of his day. In May 1905 he succeeded Paul Dubois as director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Leon Bonnat
Felix Clement
Felix Clement
Felix Clement
Felix Clement was a French artist and the 1836 winner of the Prix de Rome from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He travelled extensively throughout Egypt, where he gained artistic inspiration and created works for the uncle of the Khedive.
Felix Clement
Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry was a French writer whose play Ubu Roi, shocking for its absurdity and vulgarity when it debuted in 1896, was an inspiration to the later Surrealist movement.
Alfred Jarry
Wilhelm Uhde
Wilhelm Uhde
Wilhelm Uhde
Wilhelm Uhde was a German art collector, dealer, author and critic, who was an early collector of modernist painting. In 1905 he bought his first work by Pablo Picasso, solidifying his position as a champion of cubism. He opened his own gallery in 1908, exhibiting works by Andre Derain and others.
Wilhelm Uhde
African Art
African Art
African Art
Beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, traditional African art, often seen through a primitivizing eye, began to exert a strong influence on modern Western artists. Artists were influenced by the emphasis on ritual and spiritualism, and the stylistic conventions of flattened planes and mask-like faces.
African Art
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.
ArtStory: Symbolism
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
ArtStory: Max Ernst
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who employed color fields and painterly strokes in his work. He is best known for his primitivist depictions of native life in Tahiti and Polynesia.
ArtStory: Paul Gauguin
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró
Fernand Léger
Fernand Léger
Fernand Léger
Influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the French painter Fernand Léger developed a unique style of Cubism using cylindrical and other geometric forms with mechanically smooth edges. Often colorful and punctuated by patterns, his paintings range from still lifes and figures to abstract compositions.
ArtStory: Fernand Léger
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism