Henri Rousseau / by Chris Hall

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, 1900.

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, 1900.

Henri Rousseau was a French Post Impressionist painter who worked in the so called “Naive” or “Primitive” style (I don't care for these terms, as they imply a negative connotation to me).  Rousseau was known by his nickname, “Le Douanier,” meaning “the Customs Officer,” for his occupation as a toll collector for the government.  Rousseau always aspired, in vain, to win the recognition of the conventional, Academic Art establishment.  For his efforts he was ridiculed in the press and by critics, who were prejudiced toward him because of his lack of a formal arts education.  Toward the end of his life, his work was appreciated by fellow art outsiders Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and would be held in high esteem by future generations of avant-garde artists, most notably the young Pablo Picasso.

Rousseau was a late bloomer and picked up the paint brush for the first time around the age of 40.  He was encouraged in his painting by his neighbor, the artist Felix Clement, who managed to obtain a license for Rousseau to make copies of art at the Louvre and other galleries.  In 1884 Rousseau submitted his work to the official Salon, but was rejected.  They found his paintings to be childlike and naive, lacking perspective and proportion.  But this would be only the first rejection, in a long career of many rejections from the traditional art establishment.

In 1886, Rousseau submitted work to the first Salon des Independants.  Rousseau would participate in the Salon des Independants every year between 1886 and 1910, except the ones in 1899 and 1900.  Anyone could participate in the Salon des Independants, as long as they paid the exhibition fee, and it quickly became a refuge for revolutionary and under-appreciated artists.  Rousseau's work would hang along side many other struggling artists, namely Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1888, Rousseau's first wife, Clemence, died at the young age of 37, of tuberculosis.  The memory of her would figure greatly in much of his future work.  In Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain, which he finished in 1890, Clemence is seen alone in the woods where they once liked to go on Sunday walks.  Her hand covers her heart, signifying passion or love, and the branch above her head, which is conspicuously cut off, might signify death.  Clemence is looking back with longing, but she must go on alone, leaving behind Rousseau and the children.  Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain was shown at the Salon des Independant, but because of its special meaning, it was not listed for sale.

Henri Rousseau often painted exotic jungle scenes populated with strange plants and animals.  While Rousseau did serve in the Army during the French incursion in Mexico, he was left stateside during the affair.  In fact, Rousseau never left France during his entire life; he was inspired to make his jungle paintings from his frequent visits to the Paris Zoo and the botanical gardens.  In 1890's there was a growing interest within the European public for exotic scenes from the tropics.  The late 19th century was the height of colonialist imperialism, and people were curious about the overseas territories that they felt belonged to them.  The darker aspects of colonialism, its exploitation of people and resources, was then unknown to most people back home.

Rousseau's first jungle landscape, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891 in the Salon des Independants, and found a small, receptive audience.  Simultaneously, Paul Gauguin was making art in Tahiti, and British author Rudyard Kipling was publishing the first of many stories and poems about India.  Despite the public's new interest in exotic subject matter, the critics were particularly savage, and once again ridiculed his work for what they perceived as an amateurish style.  In response, he would abandon the jungle landscape genre for some time.

In 1893, Rousseau asked for permission to retire early from the Customs House to paint full-time.  He was 49.  Rousseau's superiors and fellow workers had long supported him in his pursuit of painting, giving him the lighter work and  allowing him to paint while on the job.  His resignation was accepted and Rousseau moved with his family to the Montparnasse district in Paris, where he quickly established a studio.  Montparnasse, with its cheap rents and bohemian culture, would soon become famous for its population of young, struggling artists from around the world.

During all of the 1890's Rousseau continued to seek official patronage.  In 1893 he wrote a letter to the President of the Republic seeking assistance, and was rejected.  In 1898 he offered his painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, to the mayor of Laval for a considerable sum of money.  His offer was rejected.  In the same year, he submitted his plans for the decoration of the Vincennes Town Hall, and was rejected.  Two years later, in 1900, Rousseau offered to paint the Asnieres Town Hall, but was once again, rejected.

Rejected by the official art establishment and continually rebuffed in his attempts to find patronage and public commissions, Rousseau soon began to run into financial problems and he accumulated debts.  To make ends meet, he took up work as a part-time salesman for the Le Petit Journal, offered drawing lessons, and occasionally worked as a street musician.  Rousseau was a talented violinist and even managed to have a waltz he wrote for his first wife, Clemence, published by the Literary and Musical Academy of France. 

One day in 1908, a young Pablo Picasso was out shopping at the Père Soulier when he came across a stack of canvases being sold as work to be repainted over.  One of the paintings was a work by Henri Rousseau.  Picasso loved the painting and bought the canvas for five francs.  He did not see the work as amateurish and childlike, he saw it as charmingly nonconformist, as something unsullied by academia.  Rousseau had always tried to establish himself as a traditional painter, yet it was Picasso and the avant-garde artists, those rebelling against the academic tradition, who ended up championing his work.

Picasso tracked Rousseau down and introduced him to his social circle.  Some in his circle thought the untrained Rousseau a joke, a bumbling, old, naive curiosity, but Picasso and his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, held genuine affection for him and his work.  Later that year, Picasso even hosted banquet for him in his honor.  Rousseau had always considered himself to be a traditional painter, not an avant-garde iconoclast.  Despite the constant rejection and ridicule, he tried hard to impress himself into academic and bourgeois society.  Still, Rousseau was happy that someone, finally, appreciated his work.  Rousseau would die shortly thereafter, in 1910, but his work would live on to become influential to several generations of avant-garde artists, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, the Surrealists, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath.