Born: Laval, France
“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness.”
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Henri Julien Felix Rousseau grew up amid humble circumstances in Laval, a small town in northwestern France. His father, a metalsmith, had long-term financial difficulties, amassing enough debt to result in the seizure of the family house in 1851. Subsequently, the young Henri enrolled as a boarding student at Laval High School, which he attended until 1860. He was an average student, aside from receiving distinctions in music and drawing.
The family moved to Angers in 1861, where Rousseau found a job as a clerk for the local bailiff. He managed to avoid the military draft by drawing lots, but ended up serving in the 51st infantry regiment to avoid scandal after his employer accused him of theft. His seven years of active duty passed uneventfully in France, but Rousseau often embellished accounts of his military feats. One of his fabricated adventures involved helping to stem the uprising against Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, where he would ostensibly have been exposed to the jungle life that inspired his later paintings.
Rousseau married his first wife, Clemence Boitard, in 1868. Of their several children, only a daughter, Julia, survived into adulthood. After leaving the regiment he took a job checking goods for the toll authority, which gained him the lifelong nickname of “Le Douanier.” During his tenure there, Rousseau completed his first drawings and paintings. The beginnings of his career as an artist are uncertain, but he claimed that he began to paint at the age of forty (1884), which corresponds to the time that he obtained a license to make copies of paintings at the Louvre. His job as a customs officer required only occasional periods of diligence, and it is possible that Rousseau was able to practice drawing during slow periods at work.
Surprisingly, Rousseau expressed the greatest admiration for painters such as Jean-Leon Gerome and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and strove for recognition from the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Having been rejected from the Salon, however, he exhibited for the first time with the Groupe des Indépendants in 1885. The two paintings chosen for the show illustrate his vacillation between tradition and modernity: Italian Dance depicts a subject popularized by academic painters, while the other, Sunset, handles a theme favored by the Impressionists. In the following year, the Groupe des Indépendants established its own Salon, in which Rousseau participated nearly every year until his death. The first Salon des Indépendants featured Carnival Evening(1886), an early painting that already exhibited the odd, dreamlike quality and compositional arrangement of Rousseau’s mature style. Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm(1891), the first of his well-known jungle paintings, was exhibited at the Indépendants in 1891. Contrary to Rousseau’s accounts of these works, they were most likely inspired by trips to the Paris Jardin des Plantes and the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle.
Rousseau’s friends and fellow artists played an important role in promoting his legacy immediately after his death. The artist Max Weber introduced Rousseau’s work to American audiences with a New York exhibition in 1910, followed by a memorial exhibition organized by Robert Delaunay at the Salon des Indépendants the following year. Uhde also published the first biography on Rousseau, which made a profound impression on Wassily Kandinsky, who later purchased two of Rousseau’s paintings and included reproductions of his work in the Blaue Reiter Almanac(1912).
Endowed with an oddly appealing strangeness that could evoke mystery within the commonplace and the exotic, Rousseau’s oeuvre left an indelible imprint on artists of the next generation and beyond. His work’s unschooled technique and sense of childlike simplicity resonated with the “primitivism” embraced by early-twentieth-century modern artists such as Picasso and Kandinsky, who looked to art forms such as African tribal masks and Russian folk art in their search for a more “primal” means of expression. Rousseau was also hailed as a “proto-Surrealist” by André Breton, for his art’s dream-like, absurdist, and metaphysical quality, and use of bright colors and clear outlines, anticipating the oeuvres of Surrealists such as Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico.