Biography of Henri Rousseau, Self-Taught Post-Impressionist

The forerunner to major avant-garde art

Photo of Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau with a brush in hand.

Dornac / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844 – September 2, 1910) was a French painter in the post-impressionist era. He started painting late in life and was roundly mocked in his own time, but was later recognized as a genius and became an influence on later avant-garde artists.

Fast Facts: Henri Rousseau

  • Full Name: Henri Julien Félix Rousseau
  • Occupation: Artist; tax/toll collector
  • Born: May 21, 1844 in Laval, France
  • Died: September 2, 1910 in Paris, France
  • Known For: Almost entirely self-taught and rarely praised in his lifetime, Rousseau's "naive" style of painting inspired many future artists and has come to be widely respected in more contemporary times.
  • Spouses: Clémence Boitard (m. 1869–1888), Josephine Noury (m. 1898–1910)
  • Children: Julia Rousseau (only daughter that survived infancy)

Working Class Origins

Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born in Laval, the capital of the Mayenne region of France. His father was a tinsmith, and he had to work alongside his father from the time he was a young boy. As a youth, he attended the local Laval High School, where he was mediocre in some subjects but excelled in creative disciplines such as music and drawing, even winning awards. Eventually, his father went into debt and the family was forced to give up their house; at this time, Rousseau began boarding at the school full-time.

After high school, Rousseau attempted to start a career in law. He worked for a lawyer and began his studies, but when he was involved in an incident of perjury, he had to abandon that career path. Instead, he enlisted in the army, serving four years from 1863 to 1867. In 1868, his father died, leaving Rousseau to support his widowed mother. He left the army, moved to Paris, and instead took up a government post, working as a toll and tax collector.

Henri Rousseau, French Post-Impressionist painter, 1902
Rousseau was known as 'Le Douanier' (the Customs Officer) after his place of work. Essentially self-taught, Rousseau's naive primitive style of painting was widely ridiculed during his lifetime although he later came to be seen as an artist of considerable significance. Print Collector / Getty Images

That same year, Rousseau married his first wife, Clémence Boitard. She was his landlord’s daughter and, being only fifteen years old, was nine years his junior. The couple had six children together, but only one survived, their daughter Julia Rousseau (born 1876). A few years into their marriage, in 1871, Rousseau took on a new post, collecting taxes on goods coming into Paris (a specific tax called the octroi).

Early Exhibits

Starting in 1886, Rousseau began exhibiting artwork in the Salon des Indépendants, a Paris salon founded in 1884 that counted Georges Seurat among its founders. The salon was formed as a response to the rigidity of the government-sponsored Salon, which focused heavily on traditionalism and was less than welcoming to artistic innovations. This was a perfect fit for Rousseau, although his work was not displayed in places of prominence within the exhibitions.

Rousseau was almost entirely self-taught, although he admitted to having received some “advice” from Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme, a pair of painters from the Academic style. For the most part, though, his artwork came all from his own self-training. He painted nature scenes, as well as developing a particular take on the portrait landscape, in which he would paint a particular scene, then place a person in the foreground. His style lacked some of the polished technique of other artists of the time, leading to him being labeled as a “naïve” painter and often disdained by critics.

Surprise by Henri Rousseau
Painting by Henri Rousseau. Surprise, 1891. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

In 1888, Rousseau’s wife Clémence died, and he spent the next ten years single. His art slowly began to grow a following, and in 1891, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited and earned his first major review with serious praise from fellow artist Felix Vallotton. In 1893, Rousseau moved to a studio in the art-centric neighborhood of Montparnasse, where he would live for the rest of his life.

Ongoing Career in Paris

Rousseau formally retired from his government job in 1893, ahead of his fiftieth birthday, and devoted himself to his artistic pursuits. One of Rousseau’s most famous works, The Sleeping Gypsy, was first seen in 1897. The following year, Rousseau remarried, a decade after losing his first wife. His new wife, Josephine Noury, was, like him, on her second marriage—her first husband had died. The couple had no children, and Josephine died only four years later, in 1892.

Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy
Painting by Henri Rousseau. Sleeping Gypsy, 1897.  Buyenlarge / Getty Images

In 1905, Rousseau returned to his earlier themes with another large-scale jungle painting. This one, titled The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, was exhibited once again at the Salon des Indépendants. It was placed near works by a group of younger artists who were leaning more and more avant-garde; one of the future stars whose work was shown near Rousseau’s was Henri Matisse. In retrospect, the grouping was considered the first showing of Fauvism. The group, “the Fauves,” may have even gotten the inspiration for their name from his painting: the name “les fauves” is French for “the wild beasts.”

Rousseau’s reputation continued to climb within the artistic community, although he never quite made it to the uppermost echelons. In 1907, however, he received a commission from Berthe, Comtesse de Delauney—the mother of fellow artist Robert Delauney—to paint a work that ended up being The Snake Charmer. His inspirations for the jungle scenes were not, contrary to rumors, from seeing Mexico during his time in the army; he never went to Mexico.

Rousseau's The Snake Charmer
The Snake Charmer, 1907. Artist: Rousseau.  Heritage Images / Getty Images

In 1908, Pablo Picasso discovered one of Rousseau’s paintings being sold on the street. He was struck by the painting and immediately went to find and meet Rousseau. Delighted with the artist and the art, Picasso proceeded to throw a half-serious, half-parody banquet in Rousseau’s honor, called Le Banquet Rousseau. The evening featured many of the prominent figures in the creative community of the time, not for a glittering celebration, but more of a meeting of the creative minds with one another in celebration of their art. In hindsight, it was considered one of the most significant social events of its time.

Declining Health and Legacy

Rousseau’s final painting, The Dream, was exhibited in 1910 by the Salon des Indépendants. That month, he suffered from an abscess on his leg, but ignored the inflammation until it became too far gone. He was not admitted to the hospital until August, and by then, his leg had become gangrenous. After having surgery for his leg, he developed a blood clot and died from it on September 2, 1910.

The Dream by Henri Rousseau
The Dream (1910). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fine Art / Getty Images

Despite being criticized during his life, Rousseau’s style was hugely influential on the next generation of avant-garde artists, such as Picasso, Fernand Leger, Max Beckmann, and the whole surrealist movement. Poets Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath also drew inspiration from Rousseau’s paintings, as did songwriter Joni Mitchell. In perhaps the most unexpected connection: one of Rousseau’s paintings inspired the visual world of the animated film Madagascar. His work continues to be displayed to this day, where it is studied and admired much more than it ever was during his own life.

Sources

  • “Henri Rousseau.” Biography, 12 April 2019, https://www.biography.com/artist/henri-rousseau.
  • “Henri Rousseau.” Guggenheim, https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/henri-rousseau.
  • Vallier, Dora. “Henri Rousseau: French Painter.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henri-Rousseau.