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Henri Rousseau – Virtual Tour

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau – Virtual Tour

Henri Rousseau (1844 – 1910) was self-taught and developed a style that lacked traditional training, with its absence of strict proportions, a one-point perspective, and with the use of sharp, often unnatural colors.

The result was art pieces that were imbued with a sense of mystery and eccentricity.

Virtual Tour of Henri Rousseau

Rousseau started painting seriously in his early forties, and by age 49, he retired from his job to work on his art full-time. His primary employment before he retired was as the duty customs officer and tax collector. 

Many critics who ridiculed his work disparaged Rousseau’s style. Rousseau, however, aspired, in vain, to common acceptance.

Many observers commented that he painted like a child, but the work shows sophistication with his unique style and technique. Following his funeral, the following epitaph was written by his friends and put on his tombstone:

We salute you, Gentle Rousseau; you can hear us.
Let our luggage pass duty-free through the gates of heaven.
We will bring you brushes, paints, and canvas.
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light and Truth of Painting.
As you once did, my portrait facing the stars, lion, and the gypsy.

Ridiculed during his lifetime by critics, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose work exerted a significant influence on several generations of avant-garde artists.

Today, Henri Rousseau’s paintings are highly valued and prominent in the world’s leading art museums.

A Highlights Tour of Henri Rousseau

The Customs Post

“The Customs Post” by Henri Rousseau depicts the Paris Customs Office’s uniformed employees at an octroi or toll gate to enter Paris.

The Paris Customs Office charged a tax, called l’octroi, on most goods brought into the city. A wall surrounded Paris, and everyone entered the city through one of the gates.

In the late 1800s, there were 66 octroi gates into the city, and about 2,000 officers were employed; Henri Rousseau was one of them.

The citizens of Paris strongly disliked the octroi, but the government needed the money. The old octroi buildings can still be seen in Paris today. Museum: Courtauld Gallery

The Sleeping Gypsy

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau is a fantasy depiction of a lion musing over a sleeping woman on a moonlit night.

Rousseau portrays an African Gypsy wearing a colorful costume, sleeping in the desert with an Italian stringed instrument and a water jar.

This painting has different elements of importance to different cultures. However, Rousseau decides to mix them all into a unique image.

Rousseau described his picture as: “A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lay down with her jar beside her and overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep.

A lion chance to pass by picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.” Museum: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC

The Repast of the Lion

“The Repast of the Lion” by Henri Rousseau depicts a feeding lion in a lush and exotic jungle. This painting expands upon Rousseau’s other artworks depicting surprised animals in jungle scenes.

The foliage represented in the art was inspired by the artist’s study of Paris’ botanical gardens and the many jungle pictures he collected.

Rousseau also took inspiration and adapted the wild beasts from popular ethnographic journals and illustrated children’s books.

The critics derided Henri Rousseau’s work during his lifetime and after his death. Still, he won a following and support among his contemporaries: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee, who were admirers of his work.

Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Tiger in a Tropical Storm

“Tiger in a Tropical Storm” by Henri Rousseau was the first of the artist’s jungle paintings and showed a tiger, illuminated by a flash of lightning, preparing to pounce on its prey during a raging gale.

Rousseau had never left France to see real jungles. Still, his inspiration came from Paris’ botanical gardens, which included zoological galleries, and from geographic illustrations in prints and books.

The tiger’s prey is beyond the canvas, so it is left to the viewer’s imagination to decide what is the victim. Museum: The National Gallery, London

The Dream

“The Dream” by Henri Rousseau is one of 25 paintings by Rousseau with a stylized jungle theme. The jungle plants are based on Rousseau’s observations at the Paris Museum of Natural History and its Jardin des Plantes.

It features a portrait of Rousseau’s Polish mistress from his youth, lying naked on a divan. She gazes over a landscape of lush jungle foliage, including lotus flowers, and animals including birds, monkeys, an elephant, a lion and lioness, and a snake.

The Dream is the largest of the jungle paintings. It was his last completed work, a few months before his death in 1910. Museum: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC

Primitivism and Naïve Art by Henri Rousseau

    Tropical Landscape: American Indian Struggling with a Gorilla

“Tropical Landscape: American Indian Struggling with a Gorilla” by Henri Rousseau is a dreamlike scene where imagination dictated the compositions rather than traditional perspective and scale forms.

Rousseau studied exotic plants and animals in Paris’s botanical gardens and zoos, as he had never traveled outside of France.

Henri Rousseau was inspired by the American West’s romantic views promoted by magazine images of Native Americans and American Wild West Show that toured France. – Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

   Struggle between Tiger and Bull

“Struggle between Tiger and Bull” by Henri Rousseau depicts an idealized “primitive” fantasy of a tiger attacking a bull in a jungle setting.

This painting is similar to Rousseau’s other artworks depicting animals amongst foliage inspired by the artist’s study of Paris’ botanical gardens and the many jungle pictures he collected.

Rousseau also took inspiration and adapted the wild beasts from popular ethnographic journals. – Hermitage Museum

   The Equatorial Jungle

“The Equatorial Jungle” by Henri Rousseau was ridiculed during much of his life as a naïve painting. Rousseau’s technique included controlled brush strokes, which made each object in the painting appear outlined.

Eventually, with Picasso, Matisse, and other artists’ endorsement, Rousseau gained the recognition he craved.

Today he is known as a self-taught genius famous for his imaginary jungle scenes.  – National Gallery of Art, DC

    Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo

“Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo” by Henri Rousseau is a highly stylized and unique depiction of simplified images of animals and nature painted in flat, bright colors.

Rousseau’s imaginative visions and the technique of painting was unique. He applied one layer at a time, creating multiple layers, and he carefully blended his brushstrokes to create a smooth surface.

Museum:  Cleveland Museum of Art

   The Snake Charmer

“The Snake Charmer” by Henri Rousseau depicts a woman with glowing eyes playing the flute in the moonlight by the edge of a dark jungle with a snake extending toward her from a nearby tree.

The Musée d’Orsay described the painting as: “a black Eve in a disquieting Garden of Eden.” – Musée d’Orsay.

    Horse Attacked by a Jaguar 

“Horse Attacked by a Jaguar” by Henri Rousseau is jungle paintings depicting a Jaguar attacking a white horse painted with meticulous care.

The horse stares transfixed in a strange contrast of white against lush green.

Rousseau’s fantastic scenes heralded Surrealism and were built up meticulously in layers, using many green shades to capture the lush abundance of the jungle. Museum: State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau: Did you know?

  • Rousseau was ridiculed during his lifetime by art critics.
  • He was self-taught, and yet he had a significant influence on many avant-garde artists.
  • Various artists have parodied his iconic paintings.
  • Animals and the jungle both inspired Rousseau.
  • His imagination sources were not extensive travels; it was illustrated books and visits to the Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Paris.
  • After his retirement in 1893, Rousseau supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs, such as playing the violin in the streets.

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau Quotes


“Beauty is the promise of happiness.”


“The universe was born restless and has never since been still.”


“It is often said that my heart is too open for my own good.”


“Excuse my scribbling, it is late, and I have a poor candle. ”


“I have always believed that good is only beauty put into practice.”


“The landscapist lives in silence.”


“Cities are the sinks of the human race.”


“I cannot now change my style, which I acquired, as you can imagine, by dint of labor.”


“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness.”


“The happiest is the person who suffers the least pain; most miserable the ones who enjoy the least pleasure.”


“It is often said that my heart is too open for my own good. ”


“The happiest is the person who suffers the least pain; most miserable the ones who enjoy the least pleasure.”


Henri Rousseau: A collection of  paintings

Henri Rousseau


A Tour of Artists and their Art

Henri Rousseau


“Beauty is the promise of happiness.”
– Henri Rousseau


Photo Credits: 1) Henri Rousseau [Public domain]

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