20% OFF FRAMING for a limited time only

Henri Rousseau Artist Biography

Henri Rousseau 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. His untrained eye gave him a freshness of vision and his vivid imagination gave rise to some fantastic scenes. Henri Rousseau was born into a middle-class family in the town of Laval in northwest France on May 21, 1844. He attended school in Laval until 1860.

In 1863, working for a solicitor, Henri 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 his father's death, Henri Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868 to support his widowed mother as a government employee. With his new job in hand, in 1869 he started a relationship with a cabinetmaker's daughter, Clémence Boitard, who became his first wife and he wrote a waltz bearing her name. They went on to have nine children but tuberculosis was rife at the time and seven died at an early age. In 1871, he was promoted to the toll collector's office in Paris as a tax collector. From this his popular name 'le douanier' (the customs officer) is derived.

Painting in his spare time, Henri Rousseau had the first of many exhibitions in 1886 at the Salon des Independents. In 1893, he decided to devote all of his time to painting and became known as one of the greatest 'naive artists', a term applied to painters with no formal expertise, working with bright colors, and with an innocent perspective. From 1886 he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Independants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review, when the young artist Felix Vallotton wrote: "His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it's the alpha and omega of painting." Yet it was more than a decade before Rousseau returned to depicting his vision of jungles.

In 1893, Rousseau moved to a studio in Montparnasse where he lived and worked until his death in 1910. During 1897 he produced one of his most famous paintings, La Bohémienne endormie (The Sleeping Gypsy). During 190, a large jungle scene ‘The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope’ was exhibited at the Salon des Independants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse in what is now seen as the first showing of The Fauves. Henri Rousseau's painting may even have influenced the naming of the Fauves.

In 1907 he was commissioned by artist Robert Delaunay's mother, Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay, to paint The Snake Charmer. When Pablo Picasso happened upon a painting by Henri Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over, the younger artist instantly recognized Rousseau's genius and went to meet him. Henri Rousseau died 2 September 1910 in the Hospital Necker in Paris.

Henri Rousseau always claimed he had "no teacher other than nature", although he admitted he had received "some advice" from two established Academic painters, Felix Auguste-Clément and Jean-Leon Gerome. Essentially he was self-taught and is considered to be a naive or primitive painter.

"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

More art prints from Henri Rousseau

Landscape with Monkeys By Henri Rousseau
Scroll To Top