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Artists in 60 Seconds: Henri Rousseau

Movement, Style, School or Period:

Naive Art

Date and Place of Birth:

May 21, 1844, Laval, France

One will frequently run across this artist being called "Le Douanier" instead of "Henri Rousseau." His friend, the poet Alfred Jarry, gave Rousseau this nickname in reference to his day job as a toll collector at a city gate in Paris. "Le Douanier" literally translates to "the customs officer," which sounds much more elegant - on joking purpose - than "toll collector." The name caught on amongst Rousseau's artist friends and persists to this day.


The most important thing you should know about Henri Rousseau is that he had a completely boring life - with the exception that he became convinced, somewhere along the way, that he was a superbly talented artist. Born to a plumber, little of Henri's young life indicated he was destined for greatness. He attended school (though not art school), enlisted in the military (though he never left France) and got a respectable (though low-level) job, wife or two and nine children, and paid his taxes.

However! Despite the typical, mind-numbing day-to-day grind, Rousseau kept some unfathomable creative spark alive in his mind. Perhaps because of his day job, he'd obtained a permit to copy works at the Louvre by 1884. Though he never took a formal art lesson, he quickly developed a style from which he scarcely deviated until the end of his life. Dismissed by many - for many years - as "primitive" or "unformed" (or, even "uninformed"), his style was, nonetheless, a harbinger of things to come.

Rousseau's work is characterized by heavy dependence on line, stiff (and unrealistic) portraiture, wild juxtapositions and flattened perspective from which the Cubists and Surrealists drew heavily. His imagination plays a major role in his work; Rousseau never personally set foot in a jungle. He did, though, spend considerable time viewing the plants and animals at Paris' Jardin des Plantes. It seems wrong to label his work as "primitive" without acknowledging the sense of wonder behind it.

Though no contemporary artist was doing anything even remotely like his work, and critics were unkind (as critics so often are), Henri Rousseau remained supremely confident in his talent. He took it as his due that a younger generation of artists - Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Redon, Gauguin and Kandinsky among them - would draw inspiration from and champion his vision. Rousseau's ultimate goal was to have his paintings hung in the Louvre. I am happy to say that this came to pass, if posthumously.

Important Works:
  • Myself, Portrait-Landscape, 1890
  • Sleeping Gypsy, 1897
  • Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1905-06
  • Liberty Inviting Artists to Participate in the 22nd Exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, 1906
  • The Dream, 1910

Date and Place of Death:

September 2, 1910, Paris, France

How To Pronounce "Henri Rousseau":
  • on·ree roo·sew

Quotes From "Le Douanier":
  • When I go out into the countryside and see the sun and the green and everything flowering, I say to myself "Yes indeed, all that belongs to me!"
  • If you remove these lines in the painting, the colors are no longer effective.
  • We are the two great painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern style. - said to Pablo Picasso in 1908

Sources and Further Reading

  • Alley, Ronald. Portrait of a Primitive: The Art of Henri Rousseau.
    Oxford : Phaidon Presses Ltd., 1978.

  • Bouret, Jean. Henri Rousseau.
    London : Beaverbrook, 1962. (Eng. trans.)[cat. rais.]
  • Cardinal, Roger. "Rousseau, Henri(-Julien-Félix) [(le) Douanier]"
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 29 January 2006.
  • O'Mahony, Claire I. R. "Rousseau, Henri-Julien-Félix"
    The Oxford Companion to Western Art.
    Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001.
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 29 January 2006.
  • Vallier, Dora. Henri Rousseau.
    New York : Crown Publishers, 1979 (Eng. trans.).

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