How Henri Rousseau became one of the most important and revolutionary painters of the 20th century

How Henri Rousseau became one of the most important and revolutionary painters of the 20th century

Henri Rousseau, one of the most original painters of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, also known as the le Douanier (Customs Officer), was born on May 21, 1844, in Laval (France), died on September 2, 1910, in Paris.

He was a French painter, a representative of primitivism in art. He is considered a precursor of the so-called naive painting.

Born in 1844 in a small French village, he enlisted in the army at the age of twenty. This decision did not result from excessive patriotism, it was only a possibility of avoiding a court sentence for minor offences he had committed. He left the army in 1868 and started working as a bailiff.

For forty-one years, Henri Rousseau lived in harmony with his fate. He started painting in the mid-1870s, mainly because he had a lot of free time working as a clerk in the Paris excise office. Even during this time, he showed interest in art. He visited Parisian Salons and made contacts with art dealers and artists. Finally, at the age of 41, he picked up a brush himself. Initially, he mainly painted copies of famous works from the Louvre and created his compositions. With time, art became the dominant element in his life, and his few friends began to call the painter "le Douanier Rousseau". 


Carnival Evening by Rousseau Art Print

Carnival Evening by Rousseau Art Print


Even though Rousseau hadn’t an artistic education, he managed to create a unique style and mastered the use of colour. He was undoubtedly a gifted self-taught person, and at the same time, had an extraordinary imagination. 

He retired quickly, at the age of only 49, to devote himself to painting. While painting, he made numerous mistakes in the technique, composition and colour typical of a layman who "wants more than he can". However, the works he created were seen rather as a caricature of academism. They aroused laughter and mockery among the audience. 


The Past and the Present by Rousseau Art Print

The Past and the Present by Rousseau Art Print


Yet Rousseau was not discouraged by failures. It would seem that the mockery and ironic remarks gave him energy. He worked hard painting and earning extra money as a drawing and violin teacher. Ultimately, he managed to create his own primitive but coherent painting language.

He took up various topics in his paintings, but he was especially interested in exoticism and fantastic visions. Rousseau's customs officer life story is like his paintings. It guides us straight, keeping the stiffness and roughness of the oak perch until we learn to see the beauty in its irregular texture and simplicity of form. His art was also called "naive, primitive" because of its simplicity, a kind of deformation of figures and space, although it was impossible to deny its fantasy.


The Repast of the Lion by Rousseau Art Print

The Repast of the Lion by Rousseau Art Print


Henri Rousseau's straightforwardness, sometimes bordering on naivety, has become legendary, as the fauna and flora of the jungle-inspired the French painter. Rousseau created about 25 paintings with exotic scenery as the main theme. It might seem that the artist travelled the length and breadth of the world in search of breathtaking and colourful landscapes.

There was even a legend that Henri was to take part in the Mexican campaign of Napoleon III. Meanwhile, the painter never left France and never travelled beyond its borders (but he did not deny rumours about his distant and exotic journeys, allowing them to pass from mouth to mouth).


Banana Harvest Rousseau Exhibition Poster


He drew inspiration from copying the works of artists such as Delacroix, but above all, he often went to the Paris zoo and the Natural History Museum, where he observed various species of plants and animals, and his imagination could flow freely in different directions, which reflected in his work.

If you look closely at the individual elements in Rousseau's paintings, which are dominated by the jungle motif, you can see that the painted plants do not look like you would find them in the real world. Even if we can guess what particular species the artist wanted to show, the inquisitive botanist will notice that the flowers presented together in Rousseau's paintings cannot occur in the same natural environment. The world created by the painter is only a great fantasy, a compilation of the collected plants and creatures.

Except for the fact that the painter was combining elements which couldn't exist in the same environment, it cannot be denied that he managed to do something fascinating in his paintings. He brought the magical reality straight from dreams.


The Dream by Rousseau Art Print


 A minor breakthrough in Rousseau's artistic life took place only in 1905 when the newly established Autumn Salon accepted two paintings by a French painter.

Although Rousseau had a chance to live in a sophisticated company, he did not manage to gain recognition, fame, and even money. He still lived in poverty, often earning extra money as a musician, playing on the street, and giving violin lessons.

However, the artistic community accepted Rousseau as a peculiar freak who was the attraction of social meetings. Young artists gathered around Picasso and Braque took a special liking to this "moustachioed old man with a violin under his arm". They invited him to their meetings and collected his canvases, making fun of him while honestly respecting his work. In 1908, Pablo Picasso even organised an evening in honour of Rousseau, at which all the cream of the avant-garde was present: Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Max Jacob, Andre Salmon, and Appolinaire. 


Study for View by Rousseau Art Print


The rugged, primitive style of le Douanier was extremely close to the ethnographic search of young Cubists.

His works had something that adepts of new art were looking for. It was freshness and expression. So far, present in the art of primitive peoples and children's paintings. It is an uncontaminated image that carries a strong emotional charge. This is what cubists, fauvists and expressionists found in Rousseau’s paintings.

It fascinated them, and they tried to learn it from their clumsy master. Soon after the meeting at Picasso's, Rousseau died and probably the memory of him would have disappeared, as would be the case of many other "Sunday artists", if not for the legend of the “painter Douanier", who survived among the young generation of artists from the Montmartre hill.

Generations that were closer than before to completely change the face of art in the future.

 La Guerre by Rousseau Art Print

He died in 1910 of gangrene in a leg wound. Shortly before his death, Henri managed to create his last and greatest, and by many also considered the most famous work, which is The Dream. The Dream can be considered as the summary of a series of 25 images depicting the jungle. The series shows the beautiful world of the tropics, filled with exotic plants, animals and sometimes people.

It is possible that, as Pablo Picasso said, he was one of the most important and revolutionary painters of the 20th century and "worked hard all his life to learn to paint like a child”.


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