Henri Julien Félix Rousseau (Le Douanier)
21 May 1844
; Laval, Mayenne, France *
02 September 1910
; Paris, France *
1875 - 1910
As a self-taught painter, Henri Rousseau was completely untrained in any established art techniques. He is best known for his naïve, or primitive, childlike jungle scenes. He was good at painting and music as a child, but spent most of his life in the profession of a customs officer at the outskirts of town. Because of this, he was also referred to as Le Douarneir, or the “Customs Officer.” He started painting seriously at the age of forty and by the time he was 49 he retired from his job in order to paint full time.
Although the painting establishment laughed and ridiculed his artistic style, he was highly regarded by artists who were outside the establishment, such as Picasso, Jean Hugo, Leger, Beckman, and later, painters of the Surrealist style. He was unaware that he was considered untrained by established painters, and believed himself to be a great realist painter. As such, he regarded himself very highly, and in his opinion, Picasso and he were the only two great living artists.
Rousseau’s painting style was unlike that on any other primitive painter, and many of his paintings were jungle scenes. Although he had never been to a jungle (he actually never left France), many of his paintings depicted oversized plants and wild animals lurking in the shadows. He made many trips to the botanical gardens, perused illustrated books, and observed closely studied taxidermied animals. There is a tale that he traveled to Mexico and fought in the subtropics as he was in the army, but this legend is untrue. He did, however, interview may soldiers who had served in the jungle in Mexico about their travels through the subtropics.
He also developed the painting style of portrait landscape, in which he would place a person or a couple in the foreground of a landscape painting. He may have been ridiculed during his lifetime, but he is now considered a self-trained genius, who created works of high artistic quality. His work has also been an inspiration for the contemporary animated film “Madagascar.”