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The Flamingos by Henri Rousseau 1907

Henri Rousseau, (1844-1910) was a very interesting and complex artist. He is best known for his richly colored and meticulously detailed pictures of lush jungles, wild beasts, and exotic people. Henri became a full-time artist at the age of forty-nine, after retiring from his post at the Paris customs office. The self-taught Rousseau became known as the naïve artist. His techniques, unusual compositions and style resulted in disdain by contemporary critics. Simultaneously, Rousseau was earning the respect and admiration of his peers - modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky for revealing "the new possibilities of simplicity".

Self Portrait by Henri Rousseau 1900 

Rousseau grew up in a small town in northwestern France. His father was a metalsmith, and the family always had great financial difficulties. By all accounts Henri was a mediocre student and excelled only in music and drawing.

Rousseau spent 7 years in uneventful military service.  During his term of service, he met soldiers who had survived the French expedition to Mexico (1862–65) in support of Emperor Maximilian, and he listened with fascination to their recollections. Their descriptions of the subtropical country were doubtless the first inspiration for the exotic landscapes that later became one of his major themes. The vividness of Rousseau’s portrayals of jungle scenes led to the popular conception, which Rousseau never refuted, that he had traveled to Mexico. In fact, he never left France.

The Toll Gate by Henri Rousseau 1890

Rousseau settled in 1868 in Paris. He married the daughter of a cabinetmaker, Clémence Boitard in 1869. In 1871 Rousseau became a tax collector in the Paris toll office, where he earned his nickname Le Douanier, or “The Customs Officer”.  Although he worked full time and was busy raising a family, he still found time to draw and paint. Surprisingly, Rousseau expressed the greatest admiration for painters such as Jean-Leon Gerome and William-Adolphe Bouguereau and strove for recognition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Having been rejected from the Salon, however, he exhibited for the first time with the Groupe des Independents in 1885. The two paintings chosen for the show illustrate his vacillation between tradition and modernity: Italian Dance depicts a subject popularized by academic painters, while the other, Sunset, handles a theme favored by the Impressionists.

The Eiffel Tower Seine by Henri Rousseau 1910

The following year, the Groupe des Independents established its own Salon, in which Rousseau participated nearly every year until his death. The first Salon des Independents featured Carnival Evening (1886), an early painting that already exhibited the odd, dreamlike quality and compositional arrangement of Rousseau's mature style. Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891), the first of his well-known jungle paintings, was exhibited at the Independents in 1891.

The Tiger in a Storm by Henri Rousseau 1891

In 1889, Rousseau attended the World's Fair in Paris. This inspired him to write a play and paint a picture about the fair. In the painting the fair was incorporated into the background of the painting Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890), which was received by critics with mockery and sarcasm.

Myself by Henri Rousseau 1890

Taking early retirement from the customs office in 1893, Rousseau became a full-time painter. War (1894), exhibited at that year's Independents, marked a turning point in his career. The large-scale allegorical painting garnered him his only positive review to date in the journal Mercure de France. It also attracted the attention of the poet and writer Alfred Jarry, who published a lithograph of War in his magazine. Rousseau executed a portrait of Jarry in 1895, which was later destroyed by Jarry himself for the novelty of ruining his own image.

Continuing to seek acclaim, he entered two competitions between 1898 and 1900 to paint the town halls of Vincennes and Asnieres, respectively, but failed to win either. Through commentary from the press, however, he came to realize that he had gained a degree of notoriety with his jungle paintings and returned to the subject with Scouts Attacked by the Tiger in 1904. Its inclusion at the Independents prompted numerous reviews, thrusting Rousseau back into the public eye.

The Waterfall by Henri Rousseau 1910

It was around this time that the younger generation of artists discovered Rousseau, whose work seemed closely related to the "primitive" art that was becoming popular among many members of the avant-garde. He quickly made friends with a number of these artists, including Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Robert Delaunay.

Independence Day by Henri Rousseau 1892

In 1906, Rousseau met Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector and critic who was instrumental in promoting his work during the last years of his life. Rousseau's career suffered a setback, however, when he was imprisoned for bank fraud in 1907. The series of notes he wrote to the judge petitioning for release, which exaggerated his character and his merits, account for some of the most accurate information on the artist in existence today.

Portrait of a Woman by Henri Rousseau 1895

Rousseau's first, though unsuccessful, solo exhibition in 1908. In the same year, Pablo Picasso purchased Rousseau's Portrait of a Woman (1895) that he found in a secondhand shop. To celebrate his acquisition, Picasso hosted a now-legendary party that inspired colorful written accounts by many of the guests, including Gertrude Stein. As the guest of honor, Rousseau sat in a throne improvised from a chair raised onto a packing crate, and even added to the entertainment by playing a waltz he had written and named for his first wife. In spite of his popularity among his fellow artists, Rousseau continued to be seen as a figure of amusement in the art world and lived in poverty for the rest of his life. He died in 1910, suffering from an infected leg wound.  

Rousseau's friends and fellow artists played an important role in promoting his legacy immediately after his death. The artist Max Weber introduced Rousseau's work to American audiences with a New York exhibition in 1910, followed by a memorial exhibition organized by Robert Delaunay at the Salon des Independents the following year. Uhde also published the first biography on Rousseau, which made a profound impression on Wassily Kandinsky, who later purchased two of Rousseau's paintings and included reproductions of his work in the Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912).

The Dream by Henri Rousseau 1910

Steeped simultaneously with eeriness and vibrancy of life Rousseau's art has left a solid contribution to the art world. The techniques and simplicity of his works resonate with the "primitivism" embraced by early-20th-century modern artists such as Picasso and Kandinsky.  Rousseau was also hailed as a "proto-Surrealist" by André Breton, for his art's dream-like metaphysical quality, and use of bright colors and clear outlines, anticipating the oeuvres of Surrealists such as René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico.

Photograph of Henri Rousseau by Dornac 1907

Although Rousseau died penniless his reputation increased after his death; he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Salon des Independents in 1911. In 1912 the painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote admiringly about Rousseau in his expressionist review Der Blue Reiter. In addition to inspiring an interest in naive art in the 20th century, he is also thought to have influenced the dreamscapes of Surrealist artists such as Paul Delvaux and Max Ernst.

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau 1897

Rousseau’s paintings are held in museum collections around the world. The Museum of Modern Art in New York owns two of his most famous works, "The Sleeping Gypsy" (1897) and "The Dream" (1910), which depicts a nude woman on a couch magically transported to a lush jungle inhabited by exotic birds and beasts. Other works belong to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, among many other institutions.

Lion in the Jungle Detail by Henri Rousseau 1910