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MAY 21, 1844 - SEPTEMBER 2, 1910
Bear Smoker
Honors Art History Artist
April 4, 2018
The following pages describe Henri Rousseau’s life and works. I found him and his art to be much more complicated
complicated than the posters I’ve seen in local stores. Upon further research, I’ve realized that his images were
were etched into the back of my mind long before I was educated in art. His works are prevalent in popular culture
culture within poetry, lyrics, and even The Simpson’s! This deja-vu type feeling is what I believe to have drawn me
drawn me to him.
In summary, Henri Rousseau was an impoverished French artist, sometimes included as a post-
impressionist or early
impressionist or
-modernist but more accurately classified as a symbolic painter. Symbolism began in late
late nineteenth-century poetry and spread to visual art as a movement to express idea over realism. Though the
Though the influence of elements from works by artists William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Felix Auguste-
Clement, Eugène Delacroix and Jean
-Leon Gerome are evident, Rousseau’s paintings incorporate the imaginary
landscapes and erotic, mystical figures of the divine and other cultures widely used in symbolism, particularly in his
last decade. His themes reflect desire, love, fear, and death. During his lifetime, his painted canvases were sold for
scrap. Today, his paintings are fond poster material for children’s bedrooms but also found in museums worldwide.
Born in Laval, in the Loire Valley of Northern France in 1844 to a middle-class
tinsware merchant, Rousseau began his education as a mediocre student with
the intention of continuing the family business. When the family home was
seized in bankruptcy, he was fortunate to continue as a boarder at school.
Rousseau enjoyed writing, music and art and received certificates for his work
in drawing and music. Due to the family’s financial class and condition, he was
afforded no formal art training.
Upon graduation, Rousseau worked for a solicitor but was lured into petty
theft of his employer by friends. To avoid punishment, he joined the army
the 51st Regiment band. In 1868, he was released from service upon the
death of his father to support his mother. He relocated to Paris, continuing his
government pension as a bailiff’s assistant.
Portrait of the Artist’s Father,
c. unknown, Oil on canvas.
National Museum of Fine Arts,
There he fell deeply in love and married Clemence Boitard, his
landlord’s daughter, writing a waltz bearing her name.
Professionally, Rousseau moved to toll tax collector for the
Customs Office in 1871. From this position, he began as a hobby to
paint the scenes he witnessed each day. Unfortunately at home,
rampant tuberculosis claimed five of Rousseau’s young family.
In 1884, he obtained a copyist's permit for the Louvre,
Luxembourg, and Versailles museums. He submitted two works to
the Salon des Champs-Elysees; one was slashed with a penknife. He
persisted though Clemence died in 1888, and their remaining son
when eighteen. In 1893 at age 49, Rousseau retired, believing that
he could become, and be recognized as, a serious artist.
Wagon in Front of the Mill,
1879, Oil on canvas.
Konstmuseum-Gothenburg, Sweden
From 1886 until his death, Rousseau displayed works annually in the Salon des Indépendants with the exception of two
years. Though his art gradually gained popularity, his dream of becoming a fulltime artist was a financial disaster. He turned
as well to additional interest, writing plays and musical compositions to no avail. Like his father, he racked up debt.
Rousseau’s inadequate pension required subsidizing his income by playing musical instruments on the street, painting
building signs, or teaching art. His surviving daughter, a budding artist, left to live with family. He married his mistress,
Josephine Noury in1899, who died within four years. He then relished in his circle of friends that included Georges Seurat,
Armand Guillaumin, Odilon Redon, Paul Signac, and Paul Gauguin. His admirers were the much younger avant-garde of
Rousseau’s weaknesses were gullibility, exaggeration and fantasy. He never traveled outside France though some claimed he
spent time in Mexico. He mistook sarcasm for complements. His exaggerations earned him the nickname "Le Douanier"
(customs officer) when he ‘enhanced’ his civil career claim. He was, in truth, a less glamourous “gabelou(tax collector).
In 1907, a musician friend enticed him to participate in bank fraud for which he was convicted but the sentence remanded.
He died at age 66, unable to afford treatment for a leg wound incurred in his studio. Today, Rousseau the man and the
artist are still viewed as an enigma, full of integrity and crafty as a fox.
Though Rousseau never saw battle in his years in the military he served as a
clarinetist in a regiment that never left French soil - and never saw any exotic areas,
he found inspiration at the Paris Zoo, the natural history museum and the botanical
"When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems
to me that I am entering a dream."
Rousseau’s knowledge of portraiture, figure painting, and landscape was developed
from illustrated magazines and handbooks and by studying Academic paintings at the
Paris galleries. Though he admitted to "some advice" from a couple of established
Academic painters, he claimed “no teacher other than nature.” He drew on his
experiences as an urbanite, his readings in children’s books and popular literature, his
visit to the World’s Fair and the stories of colonial expositions to paint domestic
scenes, battles, jungles, still lifes and portraits.
‘Portrait-landscape’ genre inventor
Jungle or forest settings with
enchantment and menace
Theatrical settings with characters
dominated by surrounding landscape
Mixtures of domestic and exotic
visual images
Still lifes
Layerings of paints to establish
Rousseau reconstructed a world
to his liking from photographs,
engravings, newspapers, and
other paintings. Controversial
modern structures (e.g.,
smokestacks, a blimp) were
included as matter of fact
elements in his landscapes.
Myself, Portrait
Eiffel Tower and his wives’ names
are included in his self-portrait.
Myself: Portrait-Landscape
, 1890, Oil on canvas.
National Gallery, Prague
Carnival Evening,
1886, Oil on canvas.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Depicts
harlequin fiqures eerily glowing like
the moon above.
Rendezvous in the Forest,
1889, Oil on
canvas. National Gallery of Art,
Washington. Lovers in 18
century garb
meet in the secrecy of the forest.
Promenade in the Forest
, 1886. Oil on
canvas. Kunsthaus Zurich. A tribute
to Clemence, hand on heart moving
forward alone under a broken limb.
The Merry Jesters,
1906. Oil on canvas.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Introduces a
manmade backscratcher and milk bottle into
Rousseau’s trademark tropical scene.
The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Public
as a Sign of Peace,
1907. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris. A
depiction of the artist’s desire to see France as a world power
with children celebrating in the background.
The Snake Charmer,
1907. Oil on canvas.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Painted based on
recollections of India by the traveler who
commissioned the painting .
The Football Players illustrates a few of Rousseau’s best and
worst aspects. This scene reflected the most modern of
times – Rugby’s first international match played in France -
but arms flailing like marionettes and miniscule feet were
obvious challenges. His smiling, neatly moustached players
are dressed in matching brightly striped pajamas, blues in
the forefront to match the sky and oranges behind blending
with fall foliage. The disproportionate landscape to player is
typical of symbolic subject placement, as though building a
collage. Which should our eye trust? Also typical for
Rousseau are signature greens, blues, oranges and reds, and
orb like faces.
The Football Players
, 1908. Oil on canvas. Solomon R.
Guggenheim Museum
The Dream is the largest jungle scene Rousseau
painted, incorporating birds, monkeys, lions, a pink-
bellied snake, and an elephant uninterrupting a
landscape of exaggerated fruit and vegetation.
According to Rousseau, the woman falls asleep on
the loveseat and dreams she is transported into the
forest. The scene is like an abundant, lush Garden of
Eden; the most compelling figures are the calm,
reclining nude on a red velvet loveseat fixated on a
dark-skinned skirted flutist. Curves of the animals
mimic the human lines and the eyes of the lioness
and flutist are fixed on the viewer. This moonlight
scene brings together many bold floral and exotic
elements of Rousseau’s prior works like Carnival
Evening and The Snake Charmer, fitting for his final
exhibited piece.
The Dream,
1910, Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art.