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Henri Rousseau Photo

Henri Rousseau

French Painter

Born: May 21, 1844 - Laval, France
Died: September 2, 1910 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Primitivism in Art
"When I step into the hothouses and see the plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am in a dream."
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Henri Rousseau Signature
"I always see a painting before executing it."
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Henri Rousseau Signature
"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!"
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Henri Rousseau Signature
"Beauty is the promise of happiness."
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Henri Rousseau Signature
"If you remove these lines in the painting, the colors are no longer effective."
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Henri Rousseau Signature
"I cannot now change my style, which I acquired, as you can imagine, by dint of labour."
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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.


  • 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.

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.

Progression of Art

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

Myself, Portrait-Landscape

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

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

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

The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905)

The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope

The lion and antelope at the center of the painting wear vacant stares that contribute to a surprisingly static attack scene, much of which is taken up by lush trees before a setting sun. Rousseau based the poses of the two animals on a diorama made for the zoological galleries of the Jardin des Plantes, home to a large collection of flora and fauna often visited by the artist. With its reference to an antelope "shedding a tear," the caption that accompanied the work reveals Rousseau's lack of firsthand experience of his wild animal subjects: "The hungry lion, throwing himself upon the antelope, devours him. The panther stands by awaiting the moment when he, too, can claim his share. Birds of prey have ripped out pieces of flesh from the poor animal that sheds a tear!" Among his largest works at 83 by 122 inches and displayed at the Salon d'Automne of 1905, the painting forcefully announced the return of Rousseau's jungle scenes, from which the artist had taken a hiatus between 1891 and 1904. With its absence of three-dimensional illusionism and depiction of jungle savagery, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was seen as both ancient and modern, inviting comparison to art forms such as cave painting and fresco, while demonstrating the directness of expression to be achieved from the rejection of academic artistic principles. At the Salon, the painting hung near works by artists that included Henri Matisse and André Derain, and may have prompted one keen-eyed critic to refer to the young painters as "Fauves," or "Wild Beasts."

Oil on canvas - Ernst Beyeler Collection, Basel

The Dream (1910)

The Dream

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

The Snake Charmer (1907)

The Snake Charmer

This painting was commissioned by Robert Delaunay's mother, Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay. Rousseau supposedly decided on the subject for this painting after hearing her stories about her experiences in India. The mysterious figure of the charmer, surrounded by snakes and hidden in shadow except for a glowing pair of eyes, could almost be mistaken for a member of the wildlife. The odd stillness of the work - characteristic of the mood of Rousseau's paintings as a whole - seems particularly appropriate here, as if the song of the flute held the world in a trance. Various formal elements of the work, such as the asymmetrical composition and use of backlit, bright colors, anticipated the work of the Surrealist René Magritte.

Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris

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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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