French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau was the most distinguished artist of primitive art of the modern era. Although he was self-taught, his work retained a sophisticated sense of color and unique composition as displayed in his popular jungle scenes.
Henri Rousseau was born on May 21, 1844 in Laval in the Loire Valley of Northern France into a family of modest means. His father was a tinsmith and the owner of a tin-ware shop. The family faced financial struggles when the business went into liquidation in 1852. The family moved to Couptrain while Rousseau remained with relatives in Laval to finish his education. Although he showed an interest in music and art, he was not afforded the opportunity to study at an art school.
He served in the army from 1863 until his father’s death in 1868 when he was discharged to support his widowed mother. He found work in the Paris Custom’s Office in 1871 and began a relationship with Clemence Boitard, a cabinetmaker's daughter.
In 1884, Rousseau obtained a permit to sketch in the national museums. In 1886, while still employed at the Customs Office, he began to exhibit his work every year at the Salon des Independents in Paris, a venue for avant-garde artists of the time. The critics were tough on the young artist, and he was often referred to as ‘Le Douanier’ (customs officer), a name that emphasized the fact that he had no formal training.
Henri Rousseau worked at his customs job for twenty-two years and retired early to pursue his career in art. The critic’s jabs did not deter the artist from his goal; to the contrary, it strengthened his determination. Rich colored images of lush jungles, wild beasts and exotic figures emerged in paintings such as ‘Surprised! - Tiger in a Tropical Storm’ (1891) and ‘The Dream’ (1910). His naive perspective and use of bright colors gave rise to numerous unique works of art.
The innocence and charm of Rousseau’s work won him the admiration of avant-garde art lovers. In 1905, together with Henri Matisse at the first showing of Les Fauves (The Wild Ones), he exhibited his large jungle composition 'The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope'. In 1908, Picasso bought a few of Rousseau’s works, and gave a banquet at his studio in his honor. All the bohemian artistic world of Paris turned out. Rousseau entertained his company by playing the violin and a good time was had by all.
Henri Rousseau was never lucky in love; he wed twice and suffered the same fate twice; both wives died early in the marriage. Alone and still hopeful, he fell madly in love with Léonie, a widow ten years his junior. Her family was not supportive of this relationship, and before long she ended their affair. Broken hearted and desperate, he returned to her with a self-inflicted wound to his leg. The wound became gangrenous, and Rousseau died in a Paris hospital on September 4, 1910 at the age of 66. He was laid to rest in the Cimetiere de Bagneux in Paris, France.
Henri Rousseau never got to enjoy the success he deserved during his lifetime. His paintings were shown posthumously in 1911 in a retrospective exhibition at the Salon des Independants. His popularity swelled after his death, and he was recognized as one of the forerunners of surrealism.