Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844 – September 2, 1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naive or Primitive manner. He is also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer) after his place of employment. Ridiculed during his life, he came to be recognized as an untaught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.

Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Laval, and started painting when he was 40 years old. Before that, he served in the army, and then worked in a toll booth on the edge of Paris.

Rousseau had no artistic training, and was not influenced by any particular art school. Typically he started a painting by drawing a landscape such as a stunning view or a favourite part of a city, and then painted a person in the foreground. He called this portrait landscape.

His best known paintings are of jungles, even though he never left France or saw a jungle. His inspiration came from illustrated books and the botanical gardens in Paris. (His first jungle painting,Surprise can be seen in the National Gallery, London.)

He painted in layers — starting with a sky in the background and ending with animals or people in the foreground. The rain in Surprise is painted in a way that was not a recognised academic technique, he used a glaze or varnish. The grass at the bottom of the picture is done in groups of about five strands, which would take a long time to render using one brush and it seems the artist invented another way to create the effect.

When Rousseau painted jungles he used a variety of greens, over 50. He worked on each painting for a long time and his oeuvre is not extensive. He was quite poor and used student grade paint.

His work The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), which shows a lion musing over a sleeping man in eerie moonlight, is one of the best-known works of the modern era.

Because he was a self-taught artist, Rousseau had many critics and many people were shocked by his work. His ingenuousness was extreme, and he was not aware that establishment artists considered him untutored. People said that he painted like a child and did not know what he was doing, but a close look at his work shows a comparative sophistication in his technique.

Pablo Picasso saw a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over. Picasso instantly recognised Henri's genius and so he went to meet him. In 1908 he decided to hold a banquet in his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau's honour which was half serious, half burlesque. Some of Picasso's abstract people resemble Rousseau's childish style.

Henri Rousseau died in 1910 and was interred in the Cimetiere de Bagneux.

In 1911 a retrospective exhibition of Rousseauas works was shown at the Salon des Independants. His paintings were also shown at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition.