"Nothing makes me so happy as to observe nature and to paint what I see."


Rousseau, Henri, known as Le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910) was a French painter, the most celebrated of naïve (also primitive) artists. But like Paul Klee, he defies all labels, and Rousseau transcends this group.

His nickname refers to the job he held with the Paris Customs Office (1871-93), although he never actually rose to the rank of 'Douanier' (Customs Officer). Before this he had served in the army, and he later claimed to have seen service in Mexico, but this story seems to be a product of his imagination. He took up painting as a hobby and accepted early retirement in 1893 so he could devote himself to art.

His character was extraordinarily ingenuous and he suffered much ridicule (although he sometimes interpreted sarcastic remarks literally and took them as praise) as well as enduring great poverty. However, his faith in his own abilities never wavered. He tried to paint in the academic manner of such traditionalist artists as Bouguereau and Gérôme, but it was the innocence and charm of his work that won him the admiration of the avant-garde: in 1908 Picasso gave a banquet, half serious half burlesque, in his honor. Rousseau is now best known for his jungle scenes. These paintings are works of great imaginative power, in which he showed his extraordinary ability to retain the utter freshness of his vision even when working on a large scale and with loving attention to detail. He claimed such scenes were inspired by his experiences in Mexico, but in fact his sources were illustrated books and visits to the zoo and botanical gardens in Paris.

Rousseau prefigured the Surrealists' idea of fantasy with his fresh, naïve outlook on the world. He is a perfect example of the kind of artist in whom the Surrealists believed: the untaught genius whose eye could see much further than that of the trained artist.

Despite some glaring disproportions, exaggerations, and banalities, Rousseau's paintings have a mysterious poetry. "Boy on the Rocks" (1995-97) is both funny and alarming. The rocks seem to be like a series of mountain peaks and the child effortlessly dwarves them. His wonderfully stripy garments, his peculiar mask of a face, the uncertainty as to whether he is seated on the peaks or standing above them, all comes across with a sort of dreamlike force. Only a child can so bestride the world with such ease, and only a childlike artist with a simple, primitive vision can understand this elevation and make us see it as dauntingly true.

Rousseau was buried in a pauper's grave, but his greatness began to be widely acknowledged soon after his death. 


"The Sleeping Gypsy" (1897) Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 200.7 cm - 51 x 6.7 in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.



"Boy on the Rocks" (1895-97) Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 66.7 cm - 32 x 26.3 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA.



"Self Portrait" (1890) Oil on canvas, 146 × 113 cm - 57.5 × 44.5 in. National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic.



"The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope" (1905) Oil on canvas. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland.



"Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)" (1891) Oil on canvas.



"A Carnival Evening" (1886) Oil on canvas, 106.9 × 89.3 cm - 42.1 × 35.2 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, USA.



"La tour Eiffel" (1898) Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA.



"The Flamingoes" (1907) Oil on canvas, 114 × 163.3 cm - 44.9 × 64.3 in. Private collection.



"The Football Players" (1908) Oil on canvas, 100.5 × 80.3 cm - 39.6 × 31.6 in. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, N.Y., USA.



"Bouquet of Flowers" (1910) Oil on canvas, 61 × 49.5 cm - 24 × 19.5 in. Tate Gallery, London, UK.

Text source: 'Webmuseum' (www.ibiblio.org/wm).

Related Artists:

Related Term: Primitive.


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