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Henri Rousseau was a self-taught Sunday painter who began intensive painting when he was 40 years old. At his times he was belittled and even today some art critics regard his art as something nice to look at but not as serious art. Henri's big drawback was his background. He came from the working class.
Henri Julien Rousseau was born in Laval in Northern France into a family of a plumber. As a kid Henri showed an interest in arts, both music and drawing. He would have liked to become an artist but with the modest means of his family it was nothing but a dream. Henri finished the Lycee, a kind of high school. And for a short time he worked for a lawyer before he joined the French army in 1863. Later he would claim that he had served in Mexico. But art historians agree that this was nothing else but a fiction.
In 1868 Rousseau took a minor job at the French Customs department where he collected customs fees at a toll station from the local farmers who brought their merchandise to the Paris markets. This gave him later his nickname le douanier, the customs inspector.
His job as a customs collector gave him enough time to paint. In 1884 Rousseau had obtained a permit to make copies and sketches in the National museums of Paris. In 1885 two of his paintings were exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Elyssees. From 1886 until his death he exhibited every year at the Salon des Independents. This was the exhibition platform of the avant-garde artist in contrast to the Salon des Artists Francais, which represented the "official", classical art. The Salon des Independents had no jury and admission procedure and every artist could exhibit for a fee.
In 1893 Henri Rousseau took the chance to retire at the age of 49 on a small pension to realize his dream of becoming a full-time artist. Henri tried to supplement his pension by giving violin and painting lessons and by making portraits on commission. He earned some extra money as a street musician.
The Leitmotiv of Henri Rousseau's paintings are scenes of the jungle and wild animals like tigers, monkeys or buffalos. Today it is assumed that he painted the jungle landscapes after the images of the Botanical Garden in Paris. And the images of wild beasts were painted from photographs and after a drawing book of his daughter. On one of his paintings the bananas are shown growing upside-down and on other paintings he grouped different animals that in reality live on different continents and could never have been seen in this combination.
Rousseau was self-taught in every way. Even his painting technique was different. He painted the different colors one by one - first the blues and then the greens and so on - and he painted from top to bottom of the canvas.
Towards the end of his life his painting style showed no substantial changes. But it had developed - into depicting imaginative, unrealistic worlds. And the motif of dream appeared in his late paintings. The surrealist movement would later consider Rousseau as one of their forerunners.
Somehow Henri Rousseau got the attention of some professional avant-garde artists. The discussion whether they took him serious or if he was only some kind of exotic amusement for them fills many books. Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Odilon Redon, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin and later Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques and Wassily Kandinsky certainly appreciated his works.
It is astonishing and impressive at the same time how this man from the working class and without any academic art training was able to find a style of his own and how he was immune against adopting anything from the avant-garde artists around him. From an outsider who finally got some limited acceptance, you would expect some eager readiness to absorb the styles of the established art world or to experiment with the trendy styles of his avant-garde comrades like impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism or cubism. Not so for Henri. And this makes him so unique.
In 1908 several artists under the leadership of Picasso organized a banquet in honor of Henri Rousseau. Many great names of avant-garde art attended the banquet, among them Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay and Wilhelm Uhde.
Picasso appreciated Henri Rousseau and for Henri it meant a lot to be a part of the avant-garde artist circles. Rousseau was seemingly unimpressed by the derision with which he was treated by art critics. He considered himself to be a great artist. Two years before his death he said to Picasso:
"We are the two greatest painters of this era: you in the Egyptian style and I in the modern style!"
By "Egyptian style" Rousseau meant the elements of African tribal art that Picasso and other artists had assimilated when they developed the art movement known as cubism. This citation not only shows the exaggerated self-esteem but also the naivety of Henri Rousseau. He seemed to live in a different world of his own.
The art dealer Ambroise Vollard with his unerring sense for successful art, bought several of Rousseau's paintings shortly before Henri's death.
Henri Julien Rousseau died September 2, 1910 in Paris at the age of sixty-six. Appolinaire wrote the epitaph written on Rousseau's tombstone.
"We salute you
Gentile Rousseau you can hear us
Delaunay his wife Monsieur Queval and myself
Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates
We will bring you brushes paints and canvas
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light of truth
Painting as you once did my portrait
Facing the stars"
In 1911, one year after the artist's death, Wilhelm Uhde organized a memorial exhibition for Rousseau in the Salon des Independents and published the first biography of the artist. Henri Rousseau's paintings now began to sell. In this he shared the same fate with Paul Gauguin. Why do so many artists first have to die before they become famous?
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(December 2001, updated April 2009)
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Thank you! - Dieter and Yorie