The son of a poor tinsmith, Henri Rousseau was born in the Loire Valley of France in 1844.
His early life had none of the romance and education of an artist.
In 1868, after spending four years in the military, Rousseau made Paris his home.
It was there that he began a career as a customs officer to support his widowed mother.
His title, Le Douanier, was a moniker that followed him with some derision throughout his life.
Rousseau had no time for an education in art or painting, but he frequented the museums and exhibitions that are a hallmark of Paris culture. In doing so, he absorbed the styles and techniques of the old masters as well as contemporary Impressionists he found exhibiting in the Salon des Indépendants.
Manuals and articles on art principles, perspective, landscapes and portraiture were commonly available and Rousseau used these as his academic training. Those handbooks, combined with his assimilation of technique in the salons and museums, gave Henri a foundation for his artistic career.
Transition From Clerk To Artist
Henri began to paint when he was nearly 40 years old. Painting only during the time he could snatch between his work and the other duties of home life, he maintained his job with the government until he was able to retire with a small pension at age 49.
With his pension to give him some financial freedom, Rousseau began painting full-time in 1893. He moved to a residence in Montparnasse, on the left bank of the River Seine. This was to be his studio and home until his death in 1910.
Salon des Indépendants began exhibiting his painting regularly, although not prominently, in 1886. In 1891, his work was given its first positive professional review. The popularity of his work grew, not from a critical public standpoint, but as an amusing curiosity. He failed in getting commissions or patronage that would provide him with financial security, so he worked part time at sales positions, giving drawing lessons and teaching music.
Paint What You See – In The World Or In Your Mind
In the physical world, Henri Rousseau was not a traveler. He never visited the tropical worlds he painted. He did not hear the calls of the beasts in the jungle or gaze on the clouds in a sky far removed from his beloved Paris.
Illustrated books, magazines, advertising catalogs and photographs were his inspiration. Wild animals, stuffed for display en tableaux, were safely available for sketching and painting. The Jardin des Plantes of Paris were as close as Rousseau got to the steamy sub-tropical foliage in which he ensconced his wild animals.
Some detractors have supposed that Rousseau’s extensive use of published materials such as photos, engravings and other artist’s works suggests a lack of imagination. However, if one is to look deeper, it may be argued that it illuminates a superior imagination. A vision that looks past the humdrum of the mass produced images and homely garden plants and elevates everyday components to beautiful, exotic and rare subjects, backgrounds and foregrounds.
Few contemporary artists could see his vision, but he did have several champions late in his career. As years have passed, his work has been re-examined and the integrity, imagination and wit have been recognized and commended. The exotic and romantic world of Henri Rousseau is finally applauded.
The lesson to be learned from Mr. Rousseau is that you can come late to the party and still have a good time. You don’t need an exciting, striking or even a particularly interesting life. You aren’t obliged to have an advanced education, an artistic family or a north-light filled studio. You don’t need to travel the world. All you need to do is paint.