“It has been for M. Rousseau as for all innovators. He proceeds from himself alone, he has the merit, rare today, of being absolutely personal… what an obsession, what a nightmare! What a powerful impression of insurmountable sadness! One would have to be of bad faith to dare to pretend that the man capable of suggesting ideas like these is not an artist.” Louis Roy in the Mercure de France (1895).
Henri Rousseau was born in Laval (Mayenne), where his father owned a tin-ware shop. The business went into liquidation in 1852 and the family moved to Couptrain, while Rousseau remained with relations in Laval to finish his education. In 1863, working for a solicitor, Rousseau and two friends began unsuccessfully pilfering small sums of money from the company, leading to a month’s imprisonment in 1864. The next five years were spent serving in the army with a discharge to support his mother after the death of her husband in 1869. After another brief tour of duty in the Franco-Prussian war, Rousseau, now married, found a job with the Paris Customs Office in 1871 and remained there for 22 years eventually giving rise to his nickname ‘Le Douanier’.
Painting in his spare time, Rousseau had the first of many exhibitions in 1886 at the Salon des Indépendents. In 1893 he decided to devote all his time to painting and
became known as one of the greatest ‘naïve artists’, a term applied to painters with no formal expertise, working with bright colours, and with an innocent perspective. He painted many landscapes and portraits throughout his career, one of his most famous works being a literal combination of the two, ‘Myself. Portrait-Landscape’ (1890). But he is probably best known for his jungle scenes, the first being ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)’ (1891) and the last ‘The Dream’ (1910). He claimed these images were inspired by his time in the army serving in Mexico but it is more likely that zoos and illustrated books were his sources.
Rousseau produced a vast range of paintings in his lifetime from the elegant ‘Avenue in the Parc de Saint-Cloud’ (c.1908) to the grotesque ‘Boy on the Rocks’ (c.1894-1895). His untrained eye gave him a freshness of vision and his vivid imagination gave rise to some fantastic scenes. His attention to detail was also very precise even when working on a large scale. What characterises Rousseau and perhaps all the ‘naïve painters’ or ‘primitives’ was the real urge for self-expression and the fulfilment that is evident in the paintings they produced. Another characteristic of this ‘group’ was poverty and so Rousseau died penniless, was buried in a pauper’s grave and it was only later that his paintings began to achieve a reputation.