Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a French painter, of the brightest artistic personalities of fin-de-siècle. He was a self-educated master, who pioneered in Naïve art.

Early years

Henri Rousseau was born on May 21 1844 in Laval on the north-east of France. His father, Julien, had a tinsmithy and mother was a granddaughter of a Napoleon’s officer.
In Laval High school Henri studied worse than ever and revealed interest solely to poetry and music. All in all, he failed to pass final exams. After that he received the draft deferment and worked on a poorly-paid job as a local solicitor. Rousseau didn’t occupy that job for a long time – he was soon dismissed after being caught cheating with stamps and small sums of money. The case was brought to trial and the young man enlisted as a volunteer to the army, hoping military uniform would make a judge more lenient. But he failed. Before he reported to his unite, Rousseau had to spent a month in prison.

Afterwards the artist liked telling fantastic stories about his service in the army. He claimed to had been sent to Mexico together with some of his mates, and to be awarded for bravery in the defense of Dreux during Franco-Prussian war. Definitely Henri had never been to Mexico, as all years spent in the army (1864 – 1868) he was a clarinetist in the 52 infantry regiment’s band at Caen.

Working as a clerk

After demobilization he became a clerk again and married Clemence Boitard, his landlord’s daughter. They were tenderly attached to each other, but, unluckily, they didn’t manage to create a strong family: Clemence died from tuberculosis. Out of seven born kids five died at a very young age, the sixth at the age of 18. Only one daughter survived.

In 1871 Rousseau, due to the protection of the wife’s cousin, was accepted to the toll service (the Octroi) in Paris. That’s why he was known as Le Douanier (the customs officer) – he collected taxes and issue receipts to the peasants, who brought salt, vine and other products to the markets of Paris. Most of his time Henri spent on the customs offices – City gate, on the banks of the Seine an woody countryside of Paris. All those places he later depicted in his paintings.

Beginning of the artistic career

His work left a lot of free time. To entertain himself, Henri Rousseau started drawing for his own amusement. In fact, he was a self-educated person, if not to take into account some lessons from professional artists. Among them the name of Felix Clement, who lived nearby Henri, should be mentioned, as well as the name of Jean-Leon Gerome, who liked painting exotic subjects. New friends helped an unknown customs officer to get the copyist’s permit, which allowed him attending galleries of Louvre, Luxemburg palace and Versailles. Besides, they gave Rousseau some practical advices about Parisian Salon, so he decided it was time to demonstrate his works to the public.

And again we have to conjecture: if Rousseau’s words to be trusted, two of his canvases were accepted to the Salon in 1885 but were immediately taken off, as someone had cut them in the first day. This story isn’t proved by any official document. Most probably he displayed his works a year later in the Salon des Indépendants. These works are well-known, especially “A Carnival Evening”. The master was lucky to begin his creative activity together with the start of the Salon of the Independents, where anyone (for a small fee) could demonstrate his artistic achievements, without being rejected by the academic-centered official Salon. During a quarter of the century (from 1886 till 1910) Rousseau missed its exhibitions only twice. Such active participation in the artistic live quickly helped Henri to feel himself a true painter.

By the end of 1880s Rousseau’s main subjects had been shaped up. They were inspired to not small degree by the International Exhibition in Paris in 1889. Its visitors could get familiar with the amazing cultures of the most exotic peoples. The artist was charmed by them and the echo of these impressions is visible in many of his pieces.


In 1893 Henri Rousseau retired. His pension was rather small, so he sometimes earned for living playing a violin in the streets. Sometimes he got commissions for portraits and wrote documents for illiterate persons. Besides, Rousseau established his own “school” (that’s how he called private classes in his tiny studio) and offered lessons of music and recitation.

A huge role in his life played acquaintance with a poet and writer Alfred Jarry around 1893. Jarry liked pieces of the aged Henri and set off promoting them. Later he introduced the master to such vanguard writers as Strindberg, Apollinaire and Mallarme.

Gradually critics started treating the strange artist more seriously. Feeling his growing popularity, Rousseau dared to organize a sort of artistic soirees, where local merchants set shoulder-to-shoulder with artists, whose name are now widely known. An amateur ensemble (Henri himself played violin there) played and poems were recited during those parties.

Many of his fellow painters wanted to please Henri Rousseau and organized banquettes in his honor. They often played trick on that talented crank. The most famous party took place in Picasso’s studio. The former customs officer was seated on the hand-made throne, illuminated with Chinese lanterns. The huge banner above it said banner “Glory to Rousseau!”. And all this ironical mummery ended up with a tipsy carouse.

Last years

Unfortunately, such arrangements couldn’t fill the chronically empty wallet of the master. At the dawn of his life Rousseau managed to be brought to trial again (in the end of 1907). Deluded by his fellow musician Louis Sauvaget, he participated in a bank fraud. After trying to withdraw money by forged passport Henri was arrested, though was completely sure he had done nothing illegal. His lawyer and friends did everything to testify Rousseau’s naïve nature and managed to set hi from the jail.

Henri Rousseau’s last days looked more like a tragic farce. In August 1910 he cut his leg and didn’t cleanse the wood, so the sepsis began. A careless doctor mistakenly diagnosed him as deadly drunken and sent to the Necker Hospital, where he died from blood poisoning on September 4, 1910. Rousseau had been buried in the pauper’s grave and only a year later his friends collected needed sum to set up a gravestone with epitaph written by Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1911 Wilhelm Udhe published a book, dedicated to him and organized a retrospective exhibition in Paris.

Legacy. Features of Rousseau’s painting

Without professional artistic education, Henri Rousseau had an inborn feeling of form, color and freshness of the world’s perception. The artist confessed that, when he was painting his canvases he had a feeling that someone else was guiding his hand.

His original manner is defined by laconism, decorativeness, flatness of form modeling and uncommonness of themes. Transforming the reality with his naïve fantasies, Rousseau was inspired by aesthetics of usual postcards and market signs. For example, impressions from visiting a botanical garden he changed beyond recognition, creating mysterious personages, who inhabited his pieces together with exotic animals and jungle plants (“The dream”, 1910, “Horse Attacked by a Jaguar”, 1910). Apart from allegorical scenes, Henri depicted views of Paris and war scenes (“Artillerymen”, 1893 – 1895, “View of the Outskirts of Paris”, 1896), portraits (“Self-portrait with Palette”, 1889 – 1890), and portraits of children in particular (“Child with puppet”, 1903). People on his expressive canvases, despite being static, frozen, like figures from Ancient East reliefs, bear vividness and acuity of characteristics.

And though his early pieces reminds of French Rococo art of the 18th cent. with typical for that period motifs of “fetes galantes” (“The walk in the forest”, 1886, “Rendez Vous in the Forest”, 1886), in his later period the author approached to Italian primitivisms, recognizable for its sincerity and somewhat dry style.

Rousseau’s desire to depict truth of life is whimsically combined with poeticizing of reality. Freedom from academic dogmas let the genial painter to use lavish palette, opened colors and simplicity of shapes, which were perfect for representing his flourishing imaginative Universe. His oeuvre forestall emergence of such modernistic movements as Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism.