Henri Rousseau was one of the first and greatest of the ‘modern primitive’ painters. He was ridiculed during his artistic life for his naïve painting style and his bumbling and gullible persona. Despite this, Rousseau never lost faith in his own work and this faith has been vindicated since his death. His paintings now hang amongst Van Goghs and Picassos in some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including The National Gallery in London and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Life Before Painting

Rousseau was born on May 21, 1844 in Laval (Mayenne), France. He experienced a turbulent childhood as his parents lived with almost constant financial difficulties. His father had a tin-ware shop that he had to close down and sell in 1852, forcing a move to Couptrain. Rousseau however, remained in Laval with some relatives there, leaving school at 16. It is known that Rousseau gained a job working for a solicitor in Angers in 1863, but the following year he was put in prison for a month for petty theft. After this incident he joined the army and served until 1868, when he was discharged to help support his mother, after his father died year. In 1869 he married his first wife, Clemence Boitard, with whom he had seven children, although only two survived through infancy. However, Clemence died of consumption in 1888 aged only 37.

Rousseau also served in the army in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. Then, in 1871 he managed to gain a job with the Octroi Service in Paris, taxing goods coming into Paris. He worked there for over twenty years, finally retiring in December 1893. At some point during his employment there, Rousseau discovered painting. It is not clear exactly when, and there is contradictory evidence, but it is thought to be between 1879 and 1886 (although almost certainly towards the earlier year).

Early Life as an Artist

In 1886, Rousseau began to exhibit at the Salon des Independants; an exhibition set up as an alternative to the more establishment Salon in Paris that only accepted work if their jury approved it. His earlier work was more restrained in colour than the later pictures, but an obsession with browns and greens was evident. Green especially is a colour that is always associated with Rousseau due to the incredible number of different greens he used. However, due to his total lack of artistic training, his paintings often lack correct perspective or correct anatomy, but it can be argued that this leads to his style being far more individualised with more character.

In 1890, Rousseau exhibited ‘Myself. Portrait-Landscape’. This was his first combination of a portrait painting with a landscape and was, at the time, highly unusual and innovative (to combine a portrait and landscape). The following year, he exhibited the first of his famed jungle pictures, generally known by the title ‘Surprise!’ (1891). It features a tiger with a most unusual expression wandering through the thick undergrowth of a jungle in the rain. A mystery has arisen from this painting in that no one has been able to quite figure out how Rousseau created the effect of the rain. It appears as though some sort of translucent medium has been painted on in strips, but some theories counter this idea and no one has been able to conclusively establish how it is created. In 1894 Rousseau exhibited ‘War’. Although most critics dismissed it as crude, as they did with most of his works, one, Louis Roy wrote in relation to seeing it in 1895:

‘It has been for M. Rousseau as for all innovators. He proceeds from himself alone, he has the merit, rare today, of being absolutely personal…what an obsession, what a nightmare! What a powerful impression of insurmountable sadness! One would have to be of bad faith to dare to pretend that the man capable of suggesting ideas like these is not an artist.’
Rousseau kept a scrapbook of anything he found written about him, good or bad, (although it was mostly bad), and although he maintained a resolute belief in the quality of his work, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the criticism hurt him deeply.

Later Work and Life

Although very much an outsider to the artistic establishment, who regarded him as nothing more than an eccentric Sunday Painter, Rousseau did become friends with several other artists and writers. Most famously, these included Pablo Picasso, Max Weber and Guillaume Apollinaire who all saw a charming naivety combined with a freshness and originality in Rousseau’s paintings and personality. It can be said that Rousseau in part sowed the seeds that helped lead to movements such as Cubism and Surrealism. Picasso threw a party in his studio for Rousseau in November 1908 in recognition of his artistic ability, something that had been overlooked for so long. Picasso decorated his studio with Chinese lanterns and created a raised seat for Rousseau to sit on as though it were a throne. Rousseau is said to have played his violin for much of the evening and been greatly moved by the gesture of the party.

Rousseau’s later works take on a slightly different quality to the earlier ones. His style became much more static, as though freeze-frames, with the tension between components ordered perfectly. ‘Sleeping Gipsy’ (1897) is a good example of this. It is a painting of a woman, sleeping in the desert at night, whilst a lion sniffs at her collar. The mood of the painting is immensely dream-like, partly down to the colouring and shading, but also down to the placement of the components. There is something strange and uneasy about the atmosphere it creates. Another, similar painting, ‘Negro attacked by a Jaguar’ creates the same feeling; in the centre of the painting and quite small compared to the surrounding foliage, is a man with a jaguar on it’s hind-legs grabbing hold of him. Despite Rousseau’s painting style in one sense being unrealistic, the painting creates a different kind of realism that verges on being highly scary. Apparently, Rousseau himself had to stop painting many times and rush to a window as his own painting affected him in so strong a way. Rousseau referred to much of these later works as his ‘Mexican pictures’. This is an interesting reference, as I believe many similarities can be found between his work and the work of the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, particularly is one compares Rousseau’s ‘The Present and the Past’ (1899) to many of Kahlo’s self-portraits.

In 1907 Rousseau became involved in a bank fraud. A man named Sauvagent took advantage of Rousseau’s well-known reputation for being extremely naïve (he was constantly mocked and had tricks played on him regularly). Sauvagent fooled Rousseau into opening a bank account in a false name and then to withdraw a large amount of money on credit. Rousseau was so naïve to be oblivious to the fact Sauvagent was conning him. Rousseau went to prison for a month for this and on January 9, 1909 he finally appeared in court, looking highly pathetic. This appears to have been one of the most humiliating events in Rousseau’s life and a packed courtroom proceeded to laugh and mock him whenever he said anything. Furthermore, his scrapbooks of cuttings he’d taken of things written about him were shown as evidence. As they were mainly full of criticism for his work, he had to endure many of these being read out, and his artistic skill being denigrated and laughed at. He was fined 100 francs and given a two year suspended sentence.


Rousseau died on September 2, 1910, of gangrene of the leg which had been brought on by sores and neglect. His financial problems had become great over the years as his pension was relatively small, his painting materials he had bought on credit and few of his paintings sold for any substantial amounts. Furthermore, he had become infatuated by a woman named Leonie and had spent large amounts of money on lavish gifts for her, despite the fact she cared little for him. His lack of money and debts must have had an effect on his physical state and helped contribute to his death. At his funeral, only seven people turned up, and he was buried as a pauper in a mass grave. It was only after his death that his paintings and contribution to art really gained recognition.

His last painting, ‘The Dream’ (1910) (a picture of which can be found here), features a woman transported into a jungle scene by a snake charmer playing a pipe whilst animals watch and listen, transfixed. Rousseau sent this picture to his friend, Apollinaire and asked him to write a poem at accompany it; ‘I hope you will use your literary talent to avenge me all the insults and affronts I have received’. Apollinaire obliged and wrote this to accompany the painting:

Yadwiha in a beautiful dream, While sleeping peacefully, Heard the notes of a pipe Played by a friendly snake charmer. While the moonlight gleams On the flowers and verdent trees, The tawny snakes listen To the gay tunes of the instrument.

Sources: 1979, D. Vallier, ‘Henri Rousseau’, Clematis Press. http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/rousseau/

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