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Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau
Rousseau in 1907;
photo by Dornac
Born
Henri Julien Félix Rousseau

(1844-05-21)21 May 1844
Died 2 September 1910(1910-09-02) (aged 66)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Education Self-taught
Known for Painting
Notable work
The Sleeping Gypsy, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, Boy on the Rocks
Movement Post-Impressionism, Naïve art, Primitivism
Rousseau09
Self-portrait, 1890

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) was a post-Impressionist painter. He was born at Laval, Mayenne. He worked a variety of jobs (saxophonist, toll collector) before beginning to paint at age 40. He was known as Le Douanier ("the customs officer"), a humorous description of his occupation as a toll and tax collector.

From 1886 onwards, he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendents. In 1905, he began exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne.

Some critics ridiculed him for his style, but he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius. Rousseau's work had a great influence on many avant-garde artists.

Biography

Early life

Rousseau was born in Laval, Mayenne, France, in 1844 into the family of a tinsmith; he was forced to work there as a small boy. He attended Laval High School as a day student, and then as a boarder after his father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. Though mediocre in some of his high school subjects, Rousseau won prizes for drawing and music.

After high school, he worked for a lawyer and studied law, but "attempted a small perjury and sought refuge in the army." He served four years, starting in 1863. With his father's death, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868 to support his widowed mother as a government employee.

In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord's 15-year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). In 1871, he was appointed as a collector of the octroi of Paris, collecting taxes on goods entering Paris. His wife died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898.

Career

Surprised-Rousseau
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891) was the first of many jungle scenes for which Rousseau is best known.

From 1886, he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Indépendants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review when the young artist Félix Vallotton wrote: "His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it's the alpha and omega of painting." Yet it was more than a decade before Rousseau returned to depicting his vision of jungles.

In 1893, Rousseau moved to a studio in Montparnasse where he lived and worked until his death in 1910. In 1897, he produced one of his most famous paintings, La Bohémienne endormie (The Sleeping Gypsy).

In 1905, Rousseau's large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse, in what is now seen as the first showing of The Fauves. Rousseau's painting may even have influenced the naming of the Fauves.

In 1907, he was commissioned by artist Robert Delaunay's mother, Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay, to paint The Snake Charmer.

Le Banquet Rousseau

When Pablo Picasso found a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over, the younger artist instantly recognised Rousseau's genius and went to meet him.

In 1908, Picasso held a half serious, half burlesque banquet in his studio at Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau's honour.

Guests at the banquet Rousseau included: Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, Marie Laurencin, André Salmon, Maurice Raynal, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Leo Stein, and Gertrude Stein.

Retirement and death

After Rousseau's retirement in 1893, he supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and work such as playing a violin in the streets. He also worked briefly at Le petit Journal, where he produced a number of its covers.

Rousseau exhibited his final painting, The Dream, in March 1910, at the Salon des Independants.

Henri Rousseau - Le Rêve - Google Art Project
The Dream (1910), MoMA

In the same month Rousseau suffered a phlegmon in his leg, one which he ignored. In August, when he was admitted to the Necker Hospital in Paris where his son had died, he was found to have gangrene in his leg. After an operation, he died from a blood clot on 2 September 1910.

At his funeral, seven friends stood at his grave: the painters Paul Signac and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, the artist couple Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk, the sculptor Brâncuși, Rousseau's landlord Armand Queval, and Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote the epitaph Brâncuși put on the tombstone:

We salute you Gentle Rousseau you can hear us.
Delaunay, his wife, Monsieur Queval and myself.
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.
As you once did my portrait facing the stars, lion and the gypsy.

Artistry

Paintings

Rousseau-Hungry-Lion
The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, 1905

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.

His best-known paintings depict jungle scenes, even though he never left France or saw a jungle. Stories spread by admirers that his army service included the French expeditionary force to Mexico are unfounded. His inspiration came from illustrations in children's books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of taxidermy wild animals. During his term of service, he had also met soldiers who had survived the French expedition to Mexico, and he 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."

Along with his exotic scenes there was a concurrent output of smaller topographical images of the city and its suburbs.

He claimed to have invented a new genre of portrait landscape, which he achieved by starting a painting with a specific view, such as a favourite part of the city, and then depicting a person in the foreground.

Criticism and recognition

Rousseau's flat, seemingly childish style was undervalued by many critics; people often were shocked by his work or ridiculed it. Many observers commented that he painted like a child.

Legacy

Douanier Rousseau Dornac 2
Rousseau in 1907

Rousseau's work exerted an extensive influence on several generations of avant-garde artists, including Pablo Picasso, Jean Hugo, Fernand Léger Jean Metzinger, Max Beckmann, and the Surrealists.

In 1911, a retrospective exhibition of Rousseau's works was shown at the Salon des Indépendants. His paintings were also shown at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition.

The American poet Sylvia Plath was a great admirer of Rousseau, referencing his art, as well as drawing inspiration from his works in her poetry. The poem, "Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies" (1958), is based upon his painting, The Dream, whilst the poem "Snakecharmer" (1957) is based upon his painting The Snake Charmer.

The song "The Jungle Line", by Joni Mitchell, is based upon a Rousseau painting.

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.

A Rousseau painting was used as an inspiration for the 2005 children's animated film Madagascar.

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