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Artists Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau Photo

Henri Rousseau

French Painter

Movement: Post-Impressionism

Born: May 21, 1844 - Laval, France

Died: September 2, 1910 - Paris, France

Henri Rousseau Timeline


"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
"Beauty is the promise of happiness."
Henri Rousseau
"If you remove these lines in the painting, the colors are no longer effective."
Henri Rousseau
"I cannot now change my style, which I acquired, as you can imagine, by dint of labour."
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."

Henri Rousseau Signature


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.


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.

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Henri Rousseau Biography Continues

Important Art by Henri Rousseau

The below artworks are the most important by Henri Rousseau - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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."

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Prague

Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891)

Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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).

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

More Henri Rousseau Artwork and Analysis:

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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.
View Influences Chart


Leon BonnatLeon Bonnat
Felix ClementFelix Clement
Jean-Léon GérômeJean-Léon Gérôme

Personal Contacts

Guillaume ApollinaireGuillaume Apollinaire
Alfred JarryAlfred Jarry
Wilhelm UhdeWilhelm Uhde


African ArtAfrican Art

Influences on Artist
Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau
Years Worked: 1884 - 1910
Influenced by Artist


Max ErnstMax Ernst
Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin
Joan MiróJoan Miró

Personal Contacts

Fernand LégerFernand Léger
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso


Naïve ArtNaïve Art

Useful Resources on Henri Rousseau






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


Henri Rousseau

By Dora Vallier



By Cornelia Stabenow

Henri Rousseau Recomended resource

By Philippe Buttner, Christopher Green, Franz Hohler

More Interesting Books about Henri Rousseau
The Man Without Guile

By Jonathon Keats
Art & Antiques
September 2010

Henri Rousseau: In Imaginary Jungles, a Terrible Beauty Lurks Recomended resource

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
July 14, 2006

When Henri Met Pablo Recomended resource

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
October 28, 2005

Noble Savage: Analyzing the Work of Henri Rousseau

By Richard Shone
January 2001

More Interesting Articles about Henri Rousseau

in pop culture

The Simpsons - Episode #222

The art-inspired episode features a work by Rousseau

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Tracee Ng

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" 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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