Ridiculed in life yet revered in death, French artist Henri Rousseau was one of the most influential post-impressionist painters of the 20th century, holding rank amongst the likes Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh.
A self-taught genius, Rousseau’s captivating jungle landscapes transported onlookers – wether they liked it or not – to places and times far removed from the ordinary, and proved that true artistry was not just a pursuit of the educated elite.
Here are 10 facts about the incredible Henri Rousseau:
1. Rousseau was born into poverty in France
Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in the town of Laval in western France. His father was a tinsmith, and the young Rousseau was required to work with him as a child to make ends meet.
He studied at Laval High School as a day student, yet when his family were thrown out of their home due to debt he was forced to board there for a time. Rousseau was reportedly mediocre in many of his subjects, yet notably won prizes for drawing and music.
2. He spent much of his life working as a toll collector
Following his father’s death in 1868, Rousseau moved to Paris to look for work in order to support his widowed mother.
He began working as a government employee, before in 1871 he was appointed as a tax collector at the entrance to the city. This would later earn him the playful nickname by his friends: “Le Douanier” (the customs officer).
3. Rousseau was a self-taught artist
Whilst earning a living as a toll collector, Rousseau taught himself to paint in his spare time, ambling the art museums of Paris and copying out the artwork he saw there.
Though he lacked a formal art education, it was perhaps this unbridled creativity that gave Rousseau his unique style of “naive art”, with his bright colours, surrealism and simple solid lines breaking the boundaries of traditional art.
4. His art was exhibited regularly in Paris
From 1886, Rousseau’s work was shown at the Salon des Indépendants in their annual and un-juried exhibitions. He received his first serious review 5 years later, after his ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)’ was shown there.
The young Swiss artist Félix Vallotton wrote of the striking painting: “His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it’s the alpha and omega of painting.” Despite this glowing review, it would be 7 years until Rousseau would again paint the vivid jungle imagery seen in his Tiger.
5. He is most famous for his striking jungle paintings
Rousseau would come to paint around 25 of his jungle paintings, each depicting lush dreamlike worlds in which giant plants loomed across the canvas. It would be these striking images that would earn Rousseau renown in later years.
The tiger itself would appear in at least three more paintings, while lions, monkeys, birds, snakes and humans also lurked in their foliage.
6. He never left France
Despite his legacy being firmly rooted in his dreamlike jungle scenes, Rousseau never left France to see them for himself.
His inspiration instead came from the plants and curious taxidermy of Paris’ botanical gardens and museums, in particular the Jardin des Plantes. Describing his visits there, he once said:
When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream
7. He was ridiculed for his work
Members of Paris’ conservative artistic elite neither understood nor appreciated Rousseau’s work, often commenting that he painted like a child.
In one showing at the Salon d’Automne in 1905, his work was featured amongst the boldly coloured canvasses of artists such as Matisse, Derain and Marquet. The critic Louis Vauxcelles disparaged the artists as ‘fauves’ (wild beasts), while critic Camille Mauclair wrote that “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public”.
8. He found acceptance amongst his contemporaries
Though belittled by the artistic establishment, Rousseau’s work was admired by his contemporaries. When in 1893, aged 49, he retired as a tax collector to focus on his art, he was at last introduced into many in Paris’ avant-garde circles.
Around this time, a young Pablo Picasso happened upon a painting by Rousseau being sold as a canvas to be painted over. So impressed by the work, he sought out an acquaintance with the genius behind it.
9. Picasso held an illustrious banquet in Rousseau’s honour
In 1908, Picasso held a fabulous banquet in Rousseau’s honour at his studio at Le Bataeu-Lavoir, dubbed Le Banquet Rousseau.
Named as “one of the most notable social events of the twentieth century” by American poet John Malcolm Brinnin, the banquet gathered together a group of revolutionary artists, shunned by the establishment yet revelling in their collective company. Maurice Raynal later wrote of the night:
here in these shadowy corridors lived the true worshippers of fire
10. He died in 1910 aged 66
Rousseau would paint his final work in March 1910, titled ‘The Dream’. That same month, he suffered a phlegmon in his leg, and by the time he was admitted to hospital in August it had become gangrenous.
Following an operation, he died of a blood clot in Paris on 2 September 1910, aged 66 years old. At his funeral, seven friends solemnly stood at his grave, including French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote in his epitaph:
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.