Fine Artists: Henri Rousseau French Painter 1844-1910

Henri Rousseau surrealist style painting "The Sleeping gypsy"Henri Rousseau was a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naive or Primitive manner. Henri Rousseau is also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer) after his place of employment. Ridiculed during his life, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality. Henri Rousseau was a self-taught Sunday painter who began intensive painting when he was 40 years old. Rousseau was best known for his bold pictures of the jungle, teeming with flora and fauna. Yet this painter of exotic locales never left France, notwithstanding stories to the contrary. His paintings were instead the concoctions of a city dweller, shaped by visits to the botanical gardens, the zoo, and colonial expositions as well as images of distant lands seen in books and magazines. A counterpoint to his pictures of a tranquil and familiar Paris, these images of seductive and terrifying faraway places reflected the desires and fears of new modern world. During his life Henri Rousseau was belittled and even today some art critics regard his art as something nice to look at but not as serious art. Henri's big drawback was his background. He came from the working class.

Henri Julien Felix Rousseau was born on May 21st, 1844, in the town of Laval in the North of France. His parents were Julien and Eleonore Rousseau. The family was part of a long line of petty bourgeoisie and the father owned several tin-ware shops. During the early years of his life, Henri was raised in relative prosperity, which made his parents' later financial woes affect him all the harder. Although the boy had demonstrated an inclination for art early on, it was not customary for members of the bourgeoisie to pursue the unconventional and monetarily unrewarding vocation of painting, and there was no talk of giving the child an artistic education. Henri Rousseau would often rue his parents' inability to recognize his talent in later years.

Henri Rousseau jungle painting "Tiger Surprised" Tiger in a Tropical Storm"Henri Rousseau finished the Lycee, a kind of high school. And for a short time he worked for a lawyer before he joined the French army in 1863. Later Henri Rousseau would claim that he had served in Mexico. But art historians agree that this was nothing else but a fiction. In 1868 Rousseau took a minor job at the French Customs department where he collected customs fees at a toll station from the local farmers who brought their merchandise to the Paris markets. This gave him his nickname "le douanier", the customs inspector. His job as a customs collector gave Henri Rousseau enough time to paint. In 1884 Rousseau had obtained a permit to make copies and sketches in the National museums of Paris.

In 1885 two of Henri Rousseau's paintings were exhibited at the Salon des Champs--Elyssees. "Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)" (shown here)was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review, when the young artist Félix Vallotton wrote: "His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it's the alpha and omega of painting."

Yet it was more than a decade before Henri Rousseau returned to depicting his vision of jungles. Although Rousseau's greatest wish was to paint in an academic style, and Henri Rousseau believed that the pictures he painted were absolutely real and convincing, the art world loved his intense stylization, direct vision, and fantastical images. Such total confidence in himself as an artist enabled Rousseau to take ordinary book and catalogue illustrations and turn each one into a piece of genuine art: his jungle paintings, for instance, were not the product of any first-hand experience and his major source for the exotic plant life that filled these strange canvases was actually the tropical plant house in Paris.

Despite some glaring disproportions, exaggerations, and banalities, Rousseau's paintings have a mysterious poetry. Boy on the Rocks (shown below) is both funny and alarming. The rocks seem to be like a series of mountain peaks and the child effortlessly dwarves them. His wonderfully stripy garments, his peculiar mask of a face, the uncertainty as to whether he is seated on the peaks or standing above them, all comes across with a sort of dreamlike force. Only a child can so bestride the world with such ease, and only a childlike artist with a simple, naïve vision can understand this elevation and make us see it as dauntingly true.

Henri Rousseau strange proportioned painting "Boy on Rocks"In 1893 Henri Rousseau took the chance to retire at the age of 49 on a small pension to realize his dream of becoming a full-time artist. Henri tried to supplement his pension by giving violin and painting lessons and by making portraits on commission. He earned some extra money as a street musician. The painter's artwork of the late 1880s and early 1890s is dominated almost exclusively by landscapes, which were his trademark genre. Although he directed much of his effort toward large-scale canvases for Salon submissions, Rousseau also needed to sell paintings to support himself. With that in mind, Henri Rousseau produced numerous modest-sized canvases of suburban Paris, which he sold for equally modest sums, often exchanging them with local merchants for groceries or services. For these small paintings Rousseau chose subjects designed to appeal to his petit-bourgeois clientele, who sought familiar scenes to decorate their homes.

Towards the end of his life Henri Rousseau's painting style showed no substantial changes. But it had developed  into depicting imaginative, unrealistic worlds. And the motif of dream appeared in his late paintings. The surrealist movement would later consider Rousseau as one of their forerunners. When Pablo Picasso happened upon a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over, the younger artist instantly recognized Rousseau's genius and went to meet him. In 1908 Picasso held a half serious, half burlesque banquet in his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau's honor. Many great names of avant-garde art attended the banquet, among them Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay and Wilhelm Uhde. Picasso appreciated Henri Rousseau and for Henri it meant a lot to be a part of the avant-garde artist circles.

Henri Rousseau was seemingly unimpressed by the derision with which he was treated by art critics. He considered himself to be a great artist. Two years before his death he said to Picasso: "We are the two greatest painters of this era: you in the Egyptian style and I in the modern style!" By "Egyptian style" Rousseau meant the elements of African tribal art that Picasso and other artists had assimilated when they developed the art movement known as Cubism. This citation not only shows the exaggerated self-esteem but also the naivety of Henri Rousseau. Henri Rousseau seemed to live in a different world of his own.
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Henri Rousseau
French painter-  "Boy on Rocks", "Tiger Surprised" , "The Sleeping Gypsy"