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Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier Rousseau)

Naïve painter, portraits, landscapes, jungles, scenes of everyday life, allegorical scenes

(Laval, 1844 - Paris, 1910)

Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier Rousseau)

Henri Rousseau (Henri Julien Félix Rousseau) called the Douanier Rousseau was born in Laval, Mayenne in 1844. Born into a modest family, he is the son of Julien Rousseau (1808-1868), tinsmith and Éléonore Guiard (1819 -1890). His artistic capacity appears early as Rousseau obtained in 1860, at the age of sixteen, a prize in drawing and another in music. He became the assistant of an attorney in Angers but was enlisted in the Army shortly after, to avoid prosecution consecutive to a theft in the office of his employer. He was released in 1868 following the death of his father and then went to Paris. He then joined the army and met soldiers who participated in the French expedition to Mexico (1861-1867). From here is born the legend that he himself took part in this expedition and then drew his inspiration from Mexican landscapes to develop his jungles. In fact, Rousseau never left France. In 1869, he married Clémence Boitard, with whom he had seven children.

After the war of 1870, he takes a job in the Octroi of Paris, tax administration which controlled the entry of any goods into the territory of the municipality and perceived on this occasion a tax (also called a grant). He began his career as a self-taught painter and gets a copyist permit at the Louvre, allowing him to become familiar with masterpieces. He makes his entry into the artistic life relatively late. He tried unsuccessfully to exhibit at the official Salon in 1885 and only in 1886 he participated in the Salon des Independants, thanks to the absence of jury. He presents four paintings, including Une soirée au carnaval. Having received no academic training, his work is not taken seriously and he is the object of incessant teasing. He was accused of portraying his characters with a frozen face, the critics also reproched him his lack of perspective, vivid colors, his naivety and and his clumsyness. 

His wife died in 1888 and his financial situation becomes difficult. He retired from the Octroi in 1893 to devote himself to painting, which doesn't provide him with enough income to live. He begans to give violin lessons to gain more money. In 1894, he hosts the writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), who gave Henri Rousseau the nickname of "douanier" when he learned that his friend served in the Octroi of Paris. They both sympathize and that same year, 1894, Jarry asks rousseau to make his portrait and present him to the writer and critic of art Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915), who published in the journal Ymagier in 1895, the lithography of La Guerre, exhibited at the Salon des Independants the previous year. The same year, 1895, Jarry asks Louis Roy, art critic for the Mercure de France to publish an article on Rousseau. This is the first study devoted entirely to the work of Henri Rousseau.

His fame increased with the years and he continues to participate each year in the Salon des Independants. In 1891 he presented his first painting of jungle: Surpris! , representing the progression of a tiger in an exotic bush. This work is particularly appreciated by the painter Félix Vallotton, who said about it that it was the "Alpha and Omega of the painting." Having never left France, Henri Rousseau knew nothing of the reality of these exotic forests, however, the Jardin des Plantes and the Jardin d'Acclimation in Paris allowed him to become familiar with various plant varieties and his imagination filled in the gaps. Like the impressionists, Rousseau was first interested in landscapes but draws meticulously. The Moulin Alfort (1895) for example, is a classic landscape, very balanced, but obviously naive, without any controlled perspective. However, Rousseau has the sense of composition and his blunders are compensated by the remarkable color accuracy of his paintings. As in his landscapes and portraits, Rousseau's jungle is not realistic: it is dreamlike.

In 1897, Rousseau outlines the Salon des Independent with his famous Bohémienne endormie (New York, Mr. A. O.), which he vainly propose to buy to the mayor of Laval. He wrote short texts or explanatory poems on these works, including his Bohémienne endormie. He also wrote several plays: La Vengeance d’une orpheline russe (1898) Une visite à l’exposition (1899), L’Etudiant en goguette (1899).

Henri Rousseau gets real recognition from the year 1905, when he is invited by the Fauves at the Salon d'Automne. Especially admired for the quality of his compositions and his association of colors, especially in his landscapes or views (Octroi, 1890), his everyday scenes, portraits, still lifes and in its famous exotic jungles (Le lion ayant faim, 1905, La Charmeuse de serpents, 1907). Rousseau's paintings have the same spontaneity that children's drawings: no linear perspective, no high-level technical, but the expression of a great artistic sensibility immediately accessible.

Ardengo Soffici, Italian writer, commissioned some paintings to Henri Rousseau and, in 1910, written for a Roman magazine the second study entirely devoted to Rousseau’s work. The article will be included in the Mercure de France, where Louis Roy had published the first study in 1895. At that time, two merchants begin to buy his works: Ambroise Vollard and Joseph Brummer.

September 2, 1910, he died of gangrene at the Necker Hospital in Paris, who registered him as "alcoholic". His friends are absent, seven people followed his coffin to the cemetery of Bagneux where - penniless - he was buried in a mass grave, the following year a few close friends clubbed together to deposit his remains in a thirty year concession. On October 12, 1947 his remains were transferred to the Jardins de la Perrine in Laval, his hometown, where he is still based. On his tomb we can see a bronze medallion from Brancusi and a long epitaph from Apollinaire.

Henri Rousseau is a unique case in the history of European art. He influenced many artists, including the Surrealists. It has in his relations as many painters as writers. He met with several other artists at the end of his life, like Robert Delaunay, Paul Signac, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Alexandre Cabanel, Edgar Degas, William Bouguereau, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. Gradually, he is recognized and estimated by the avant-garde painters.

He was an original colorist, with a brief but precise style, he is one of the most prominent representative of naive painting. We can distinguish several categories in his works:

First portraits and scenes of popular life: portraits of Rousseau by himself (1888-1890, Museum of Prague) A wedding in the country (1905, Paris, Orangerie, William Walter al.), Portrait Loti (Zurich, Kunsthaus), the father of Carriole Juniet (1908, Paris, Orangerie, coll. Walter Guillaume). The characters are represented face with a frozen expression. The pyramidal composition is scholarly, drawing, despite his awkwardness, has a crisp, and colors were bright and harmonious relief worthy of Primitives.

A second series, the landscapes of Paris, show the quays of the Seine, the streets of the suburbs, with small characters, walkers, anglers, an idyllic and profound poetry: the Walk in the forest (between 1886 and 1890, Zurich, Kunsthaus), View of the park Montsouris (1895, Paris, coll. part.),  Bois de Boulogne (1898 anc. al. H. Siemens). The stylization of the trees, like embroidered, clouds in cotton wool pieces, the delicacy of the rendering of materials and lights, give these small scenic views a mysterious atmosphere of lost paradise.

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Work(s)