Henri Rousseau Biography

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born May 21, 1844 , Laval , France
died Sept. 2, 1910 , Paris

By name Le Douanier (French: The Customs Officer), French painter, archetype of the modern naive artist. He expressed himself mainly in richly coloured and meticulously detailed pictures of lush jungles, wild beasts, and exotic figures (e.g., “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 1897, and “The Snake-Charmer,” 1907). After exhibiting with the Fauves in 1905, he became an object of admiration to avant-garde artists.

Early life

Rousseau, the son of a tinsmith, was from a modest background. He was a mediocre student, left the secondary school in Laval without having completed his studies, and soon entered military service, in which he remained for four years.

During his term of service he met soldiers who had survived the French expedition to Mexico (1862-65) in support of Emperor Maximilian, and he listened with fascination to their recollections. Their descriptions of the subtropical country were doubtless the first inspiration for the exotic landscapes that later became one of his major themes. The vividness of Rousseau’s portrayals of jungle scenes led to the popular conception, which Rousseau never refuted, that he travelled to Mexico . In fact, he never left France .

Civil-service career and early paintings

Released from military service upon the death of his father to support his widowed mother, he settled in 1868 in Paris . The following year he married the daughter of a cabinetmaker, Clémence Boitard. In Paris he began a career as a petty official, eventually becoming, in 1871, a tax collector in the Paris toll office; from this post came the name by which in later years he was well known, le douanier, or “customs officer,” in spite of the fact that the toll office had no real customs functions. Working as a bureaucrat and busy with family affairs, he still somehow found time to draw and paint. Although no works remain as evidence, he had probably drawn and painted since childhood, and his stated ambition was to be a painter in the style of the academicians of his day. In 1884 he obtained permission to copy paintings at the Louvre. In 1886 he exhibited his first painting, not at the official Salon, which would never have admitted a painter of such naiveté, but at the Salon des Indépendants, an annual exhibition established by young painters to allow themselves and other painters to exhibit and still be free from the narrow official requirements of style and subject matter.

The picture with which Rousseau made his debut, “Carnival Evening,” was, in fact, a masterpiece of its kind and an impressive beginning for the artist. This work exhibits an approach to representation that is typical of the naive artist-everything is literally and deliberately drawn; every branch of the trees is traced, the clouds have a curious solidity, and greater attention is paid to the details of costume than to the figures themselves. The design of the painting, however, is effectively poetic, and a striking quality of atmosphere and mood is achieved through the accurate and sensitive observation of the colours of the evening and through the literal treatment of trees and clouds that is ultimately unreal and contributes to an air of mystery.

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In spite of this auspicious beginning, Rousseau’s work still went largely unnoticed, except for the consistent ridicule of the critics, for the next seven years. During this period he exhibited some 20 paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, but he remained essentially an amateur, dividing his time among painting, work at the toll house, and family life. His wife, who had been ill for some time, died in 1888, and within several years he lost all of his family except for a daughter, whom he sent to live with relatives.

This period of personal hardship was also a period of increased artistic activity. An important event in Rousseau’s life at this time was the Universal Exposition, held in Paris in 1889. Being a simple man but one with great imagination, he was profoundly impressed by what he saw there. It is probable that the reconstructions of Senegalese, Tonkinese, and Tahitian landscapes at the exposition provided further inspiration for the exoticism of his later paintings. His enthusiasm for the fair was so great that he wrote a vaudeville play entitled A Visit to the Exposition of 1889, which, however, he did not succeed in having produced. In this play, as in other theatrical works he wrote, his naiveté revealed itself even more than in the technical aspects of his painting. Also revealed, however, was an intense desire to express himself artistically; he even attempted to compose music. Still, his only real gift was for painting. Like his contemporaries the Impressionists, he was attracted by landscapes, and at this time he wished to imitate nature. His painting “The Toll-House” (c. 1900; Courtauld Institute Galleries, London) shows his place of work; an early photograph of the same location shows that Rousseau conferred on his depiction a profound lyricism while remaining loyal to reality. The most important work of this period in Rousseau’s career is his self-portrait “Myself: Portrait-Landscape.” Standing in the foreground, palette in hand, Rousseau is surrounded by the Parisian landscape, painted with great accuracy. This is obviously intended as a “portrait of the artist” in the academic tradition; the seriousness of purpose is impressive in spite of the naiveté of execution.

Later paintings and recognition.

In 1893 Rousseau retired from the toll house to devote himself entirely to painting. Soon afterward, he met Alfred Jarry, a brilliant young writer, also from Laval , whose nonconformity shocked his contemporaries. He was struck by Rousseau’s unusual work and introduced the self-taught artist to the circle of intellectuals associated with the avant-garde review Le Mercure de France. It was this review that first published an article praising Rousseau. The article was written in connection with his painting “War,” an allegory exhibited at the 1894 Salon des Indépendants, which demonstrated that Rousseau was much more than a minor landscapist. This work also marked the beginning of the recognition of Rousseau as a serious painter. His most important painting of this period was “The Sleeping Gypsy”. It portrays a female Gypsy asleep in a moonlit desert with a huge lion standing over her, seemingly transfixed and unwilling to touch her. The landscape is completely bare except for the Gypsy’s jug and mandolin. This painting is exceedingly primitive in its technique; the Gypsy lies stiffly on the ground, still clutching her walking staff, and her smiling face is childishly rendered. The stripes of her dress and the hairs of the lion’s mane are individually traced in a naive but decorative, almost abstract manner. The painting, however, is wonderfully expressive. The Gypsy’s smile, the lion’s staring eye, the bare, unearthly landscape, and the whimsical twist at the end of the lion’s tail unite opposing feelings of peace and danger, solemn mystery and whimsy, into a powerful expression of magical enchantment. When he exhibited the painting, Rousseau wrote to the mayor of his native Laval asking him to purchase it; he intended it to be a tribute to his native town. The mayor, however, was merely amused at the idea. Rousseau, by this time, had enormous confidence in his own work and considered himself to be a great painter. Not only was he unaware of his lack of conventional technical skill, but he believed that his work resembled that of the academic painters. He still dreamed of official glory, but his painting was appreciated only by young avant-garde painters such as Robert Delaunay, Picasso, and their common defender, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who also became Rousseau’s principal supporter.

In 1905 Rousseau was invited to the Salon d’Automne (a semi-official exhibition created after a schism among the academicians), where his painting “The Hungry Lion” was hung in the same room with the works of some of the most popular painters of the day, who were called Fauves (Wild Beasts): Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck. The work of these men, with its pure colours and lack of conventional realism, was similar to Rousseau’s. At last the critics began to speak of him. Ambroise Vollard, the most important dealer in modern paintings in Paris , bought pictures from him.

Rousseau lived in a humble quarter of Paris , where he gave painting lessons in his home. (His second wife, whom he had married in 1899, died in 1903). Among avant-garde artists and intellectuals he became a popular figure. In 1908 Picasso organized in his studio a banquet in Rousseau’s honour, to which the most sophisticated artists and critics of his day were invited.

During these last years Rousseau painted chiefly exotic landscapes, of which “The Hungry Lion” was the first major example. He excelled in these works, creating with his primitive approach a unique mode in depicting this type of scene. The paintings are characterized by a profusion of exotic plant growth painted with great attention to detail; many varieties of plants, undoubtedly studied at the Paris botanical garden, are distinctly differentiated, with obvious fascination for the different leaf forms. Although crowded together, the plants are deliberately treated, with each leaf painted separately and each branch of leaves constituting a beautiful abstract pattern. In the midst of this vegetal density, colourful birds flit about and mysterious animals stare out at the viewer. There is usually some dramatic incident taking place in the centre, such as a lion attacking its prey, which is in keeping with Rousseau’s continued predilection toward the grandiose historical, dramatic narratives of the academic tradition of painting of his time.

Shortly before his death, in 1910, Rousseau painted the most ambitious of these jungle paintings and one of his greatest works, “Yadivigha’s Dream.” In this impressive fantasy, an enchanting nude rests on a red-plush Victorian sofa in the middle of a dense jungle. Huge flowers wave about her head, two lions and an elephant peer out of the undergrowth, and a dark-skinned musician plays a flute behind her. Rousseau’s explanation of this scene is that the lady, having fallen asleep on the sofa, dreams that she is transported to this improbable region. The simplicity of Rousseau’s conception and of his cast of mind allows a directness of purpose that accounts for the astonishing unconventionality of the subject. The painting, which exhibits all of Rousseau’s descriptive and expressive skill, is also a supreme revelation of his powerful and uncommon imagination.

Rousseau’s career was remarkable. His work not only inspired a revival of true naive painting in the 20th century but also influenced a branch of modern art.

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