Henri Rousseau 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.
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 Tour of Henri Rousseau’s Art
- The Customs Post
- “The Customs Post” by Henri Rousseau depicts the uniformed employees of the Paris Customs Office 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 at the time, 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 in a desert wearing a colorful costume, sleeping in the desert with an Italian stringed instrument, and a jar of water. 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 setting. 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 the botanical gardens of Paris, 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 imagination of the viewer 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 is gazing 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
- Name: Henri Julien Félix Rousseau
- Born: 1844 – Laval, Mayenne, France
- Died: 1910 (aged 66) – Paris, France
- Nationality: French
- Movement: Post-Impressionism, Naïve art, Primitivism
- Notable works:
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 sources of imagination 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 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 ”
A Tour of Artists and their Art
- Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510)
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
- Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528)
- Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)
- Raphael (1483 – 1520)
- Titian (1488 – 1576)
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 – 1569)
- El Greco (1541 – 1614)
- Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)
- Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)
- Canaletto (1697 – 1768)
- Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828)
- J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851)
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867)
- John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896)
- Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)
- Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
- Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)
- Henri Rousseau (1844 – 1910)
- Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)
- John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917)
- Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
- John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)
- Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)
- Rupert Bunny (1864 – 1947)
- Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944)
- Goyō Hashiguchi (1880 – 1921)
- Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)
- Artists and their Art
- Ridiculed during his lifetime by critics, he influenced many artists.
- When is it too late to develop a new passion?
- Is there room today for self-taught artists to make a difference?
“Beauty is the promise of happiness.”
– Henri Rousseau
Photo Credits: 1) Henri Rousseau [Public domain]