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Artists’ Birthdays: May the 21st – Henri Rousseau (1844)

May 21, 2012

Would you like to know it all? We would! That’s why the theme for our Know It All Section for 2012 is Artists’ Birthdays. We hope that these posts will help to increase our and your knowledge in Art History. Lets get acquainted with more painters, lets recognise their artwork and be inspired by the masterpieces!

I’ve always liked Henri Rouseau’s jungle paintings: toylike tigers hiding behind rich green flora.  I might not be taking them seriously – his artwork is really good, yet these paintings don’t seem to be something that I’d expect to find in a museum, they’re more likely to be used as book illustrations (not that I think that none of the book illustrations can be considered as serious/proper art). I knew that Rouseau was self-taught, but never had a chance to have a closer look at his other artwork, so I guess this was my big chance.

Henri Rousseau (1844 – 1910)

Henri Julien Félix Rousseau (May 21, 1844 – September 2, 1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naïve or Primitive manner. He was also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), a humorous description of his occupation as a toll collector. Ridiculed during his life, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.

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It seems this time I managed to find a biography written in a very curious way… I have added some more information from another source. Anyway, here it is.

The most important thing you should know about Henri Rousseau is that he had a completely boring life – with the exception that he became convinced, somewhere along the way, that he was a superbly talented artist. Born to a plumber (Henri Rousseau was born in Laval, France in 1844 in the Loire Valley into the family of a tinsmith.), little of Henri’s young life indicated he was destined for greatness. He attended school (though not art school) (He was mediocre in some subjects at the high school but won prizes for drawing and music.), enlisted in the military (though he never left France) and got a respectable (though low-level) job, wife or two and nine children (In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord’s 15 year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). She died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898.), and paid his taxes.

Henri Rousseau, Myself, Portrait-Landscape, 1890

However! Despite the typical, mind-numbing day-to-day grind, Rousseau kept some unfathomable creative spark alive in his mind. Perhaps because of his day job, he’d obtained a permit to copy works at the Louvre by 1884. Though he never took a formal art lesson, he quickly developed a style from which he scarcely deviated until the end of his life (He started painting seriously in his early forties, and by age 49 he retired from his job to work on his art full time.). Dismissed by many – for many years – as “primitive” or “unformed” (or, even “uninformed”), his style was, nonetheless, a harbinger of things to come (Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”, although he admitted he had received “some advice” from two established Academic painters, Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Essentially he was self-taught and is considered to be a naïve or primitive painter.).

Henri Rousseau, Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

Rousseau’s work is characterized by heavy dependence on line, stiff (and unrealistic) portraiture, wild juxtapositions and flattened perspective from which the Cubists and Surrealists drew heavily. His imagination plays a major role in his work; Rousseau never personally set foot in a jungle. He did, though, spend considerable time viewing the plants and animals at Paris’ Jardin des Plantes (His inspiration came from illustrated books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of taxidermied wild animals. He had also met soldiers, during his term of service, who had survived the French expedition to Mexico and listened to their stories of the subtropical country they had encountered. To the critic Arsène Alexandre, he described his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes: “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.”). It seems wrong to label his work as “primitive” without acknowledging the sense of wonder behind it.

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1905-06

Though no contemporary artist was doing anything even remotely like his work, and critics were unkind (as critics so often are), Henri Rousseau remained supremely confident in his talent (Rousseau’s flat, seemingly childish style was disparaged by many critics; people often were shocked by his work or ridiculed it. His ingenuousness was extreme, and he always aspired, in vain, to conventional acceptance.). He took it as his due that a younger generation of artists – Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Gauguin and Kandinsky among them – would draw inspiration from and champion his vision. Rousseau’s ultimate goal was to have his paintings hung in the Louvre. I am happy to say that this came to pass, if posthumously.

Henri Rousseau, Liberty Inviting Artists to Participate in the 22nd Exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, 1906


– Rousseau’s work exerted an “extensive influence … on several generations of vanguard artists, starting with Picasso and including Jean Hugo, Léger, Beckmann and the Surrealists,” according to Roberta Smith, an art critic writing in The New York Times. “Beckmann’s amazing self-portraits, for example, descend from the brusque, concentrated forms of Rousseau’s portrait of the writer Pierre Loti”.

– The visual style of Michel Ocelot’s 1998 animation film Kirikou and the Sorceress is partly inspired by Rousseau, particularly the depiction of the jungle vegetation.

– Critics have noted the influence of Rousseau on Wallace Stevens’s poetry. See for instance Stevens’s Floral Decorations for Bananas in the collection Harmonium.

– One of his works was used to be an inspiration for the animated film Madagascar.

– The song The Jungle Line by Joni Mitchel is based upon a Rousseau painting.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

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Information for this post found on Wikipedia and (ArtHistory).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2012 2:16 pm

    my formal art education was minimal, and i have spent most of my adult life dismissing art an option because of this. I just recently found an old tattered book at the second hand store called Naive Art. i knew the moment i opened it’s pages and found Rousseau and others, i wanted to learn more about this genre of works and the artists. i experience extraordinary emotion lost in these images and surreal worlds. since i have had access to, and embraced the internet, i realize there is no limit the the education i can receive. i thank you for being part of that. Thank you Henri Rousseau!! i only accidently stumbled across your blog…i love it! what a wierd coincidence. i am sure i will spend lots of time here! (-:

    • May 28, 2012 8:48 am

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’m really glad to hear that you like our blog and do hope that we will be able to come up with many more interesting topics for you to read (-:

      The term ‘Naive Art’ might not sound very serious, yet I’m sure many are impressed, when they have a closer look at what hides beneath it. I’m so glad that for e.g. Rousseau wasn’t discouraged by all the harsh comments he received and continued to paint. His paintings should be regarded not only as an artistic legacy, but also should serve as a form of inspiration and proof that nothing is impossibe – if you like doing something, go ahead and don’t hesitate.

      Well, thank you once again for stopping by and we hope to see you here again! x

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