Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844 - September 2, 1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naive or Primitive manner. He is also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer) after his place of employment. Ridiculed during his life, he is now seen as an untaught genius whose works are of the highest artistic quality.
Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in a city called Laval. He did not start painting until he was forty. Before that, having served in the army, he then worked in a tollbooth on the edge of Paris.
Rousseau had never had any artistic training, and was not influenced by any particular art school. Typically he would start by drawing a landscape such as a stunning view or a favourite part of a city and paint a person in the foreground. He called this "portrait landscape".
Rousseau’s most famous paintings are of jungles which is surprising because Henri never saw a jungle, he never left France, but he got his inspiration from illustrated books and the botanical gardens in Paris. Rousseau’s first jungle painting, "Surprise" which can be seen in the National Gallery, London (one of only two Rousseaus in England) is a very good example. First of all, this artist painted in layers starting with a sky at the very back and ending with the animals or people in the foreground. The rain in "Surprise" is done in a way that was not a recognised academic technique: Rousseau used a glaze or varnish. The grass at the base of the picture is done in bunches of about five strands - this would take a long time to do using one brush and it seems the artist thought up another way of creating this effect.
His work "The Sleeping Gypsy" (1897), which shows a lion musing over a sleeping man in eerie moonlight, is one of the best-known works of the modern era.
One of the problems with being a self-taught artist was that Rousseau had many critics and many people were shocked by his work. His ingenuousness was extreme, and he was not aware that establishment artists considered him untutored. People were constantly saying that Rousseau painted like a child and did not know what he was doing but a close look at his work shows a camparative sophistication in his technique. When Rousseau painted jungles he used a great variety of greens, over fifty. Henri Rousseau spent a long time on each painting, which means his oeuvre is not extensive. Rousseau himself was quite a poor man and used student grade paint.
Pablo Picasso saw a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over. Picasso instantly recognised Henri's genius and so he went to meet him. In 1908 he decided to hold a banquet in Rousseau’s honour which was half serious, half burlesque. Some of Picasso’s abstract people resemble Rousseau’s ‘childish’ style.
Henri Rousseau passed away in 1910 and was interred in the Cimetière de Bagneux.