Henri Rousseau was a captivating self-taught French painter. His artworks became primarily known for his representations of lush jungle landscapes with vivid use of color, eventually developing a highly distinctive style of painting associated with Primitivism and Naif art. The simplified figures in his work were akin to the formal shiftings that happened through Modernism. His work was especially influential upon Surrealism.
Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born in 1844 in the city of Laval, France. He was a son of a tinsmith, Julien Rousseau, and his mother was Éléonore Guiard. From a very young age, Rousseau had to work. As a boy, he studied at Laval High School. His performance in high school was mediocre in most disciplines, except music and drawing, which he even won prizes. The young boy then became a student at a boarding school due to his father's many debts. His parents even had to leave town after their house was seized.
After graduating high school, Rousseau began to study law and worked for a lawyer for a brief time. At 19 years old, the young artist enlisted in the army, for which he served for four years. After his father's death, Rousseau moved to Paris to aid his widowed mother, where he worked as a government employee.
Rousseau married Clemence Boitard in 1869. Unfortunately, only one out of their nine children survived - a daughter named Julia. The painter started to work doing minor bureaucratic work for the government. After the war of 1870, he worked as a tax collector on the border of the city, supervising the commercialization of alcohol for a toll house. This fact granted him the nickname of "Le Douanier".
He began his artistic practice around 1872. As cited earlier, his interest in drawing was manifested at a young age while at the Laval Lycée. He also continued drawing through his seven years in the army, but facing his financial condition of the time, he could hardly fancy a painter's career. Nonetheless, Rousseau built an intimate relationship with his artistic vision in the precedent years.
Rousseau never had any form of formal art education. Instead, the artist taught himself by copying artworks in the museums of Paris. His fancy for sketching from the Louvre dates from 1884. He also had the habit of drawing the displays of natural history museums and botanical gardens from observation. Possibly because of the artist's lack of formal training, Rousseau developed a highly personal style of painting.
The first attempt of the painter to enter the art circuit was in 1885 when the official Salon rejected his submission. In the next year, though, he participated in the opposing Salon des Indépendants with four paintings. One of them was Carnival Evening, an oil on canvas that already carried Rousseau's mature style. At the time, it became a reason for joking among many artists that participated in the exhibit. The palette, a cold and somber one, and the simplified anatomy were off-putting for most of the public at the time.
Despite this negative and critical reaction, he persevered through the years and never missed participating in any of the Salons des Indépendants. Even with his detractors, he ended up achieving connections and admiration from some artists as well. In 1891 he exhibited the first of his famed "jungle" pictures, Tiger In A Tropical Storm Surprised. Felix Vallotton described this work as the "alpha and omega of painting."
In 1888, his wife Clement died of tuberculosis. To make matters worse for Rousseau, he got into financial trouble. Even in this situation, he took in the avant-garde playwright Alfred Jarry, who had given him his nickname. From 1893 on, he tried to live only by the commercialization of his oil paintings, but he didn't make enough money. He eventually wrote plays as well and started to give violin classes to get by.
With the courage to try to press for his painting career, he created one of his most famous artworks entitled War. The painting is located at the Musée d'Orsay and is a 114 x 195 cm canvas. The work is based on his traumatic experiences while in the army and transmitted the French's anxiety after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. This piece was one of his most polemic works as well, stimulating sarcasm in many and a passionate admiration in others.
The artist married Joséphine-Rosalie Nourry in 1898. With the revolution of Impressionist painting fading away and Post-Impressionism beginning to diversify from its origins, the French art scene became more welcoming of Rousseau's work. French artists such as Andre Derain and Henri Matisse were fascinated by the boldness of his art. Soon enough, Rousseau got close to the likes of Apollinaire, a poet, Robert Delaunay, and Pablo Picasso.
Rousseau was nominated as a teacher in an institution, which was a significant personal achievement for him. The next years seemed to be peaceful, and in 1906 he met a German collector called Wilhelm Unde, who did his best to promote his art. Unfortunately, his tranquility only lasted until 1907, when he got arrested for a fraud scheme committed by a banker friend. The artist was then sentenced to two years in jail.
Rousseau's artworks have a "Naive" quality, depriving his compositions of perspective and detailed human anatomy. The artist created dreamlike compositions, intensified by the use of vivid colors and non-realistic scales, creating dramatic results. His work was both focused on landscape and figurative painting and was an early manifestation of painting's tendency towards abstraction.
Several of Rousseau's most famous artworks are compositions depicting human figures surrounded by jungle and wild animals. After Tiger in a Tropical Storm Surprised gathered him good critics, he kept investing his time on the theme. Six years later, the artist created one of his most famous paintings, The Sleeping Gypsy.
Although Rousseau's paintings were never accepted or understood by the conservative official art circles of Paris, the artist was able to exhibit several times at the annual art shows promoted by the Societe des Artistes Independants. He continued to attend unjuried and open exhibitions until the end of his life. His artworks were also appreciated by well established and respected artists, such as Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro. Two years before his death, Picasso threw a party in his honor after buying Portrait of a Woman.
Henri Julien Rousseau died in Paris on September 2, 1910. He was buried in the Bagneux graveyard in a mass grave. Even though he later received acclamation on his life's work, he died penniless.