Henri Rousseau

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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 came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.

Background

He was born in Laval into the family of a plumber. He served in the army for seven years, and spent the rest of his working life in a toll booth on the edge of Paris. He started painting seriously in his early forties.

Rousseau claimed he had "no teacher other than nature", although he admitted he had received "some advice" from two established Academic painters, F�lix Auguste-Cl�ment and Jean-L�on G�r�me. Essentially he was self-taught.

Paintings

His best known paintings are of jungles, even though he never left France or saw a jungle. Stories spread by admirers that his army service included the French expeditionary force to Mexico are unfounded. His inspiration came from illustrated books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of 'taxidermified' wild animals. He described his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes: "When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream."

As well as his exotic scenes there was a concurrent output of smaller topographical images of the city and its suburbs.

He claimed to have invented a new genre of portrait landscape, which he achieved by starting a painting with a view such as a favourite part of the city, and then depicting a person in the foreground.

Technique

He painted in layers � starting with a sky in the background and ending with animals or people in the foreground. The rain in Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891), (National Gallery, London), his first jungle painting, is achieved in an innovatory way with thin light grey strands of paint slanting across the canvas with a glaze or varnish.

When Rousseau painted jungles he could use over fifty varieties of green. Although derived from nature, his foliage is adapted to his artistic needs and no longer recognisable as particular plants.

He worked on each painting for a considerable length of time and consequently his oeuvre is not extensive. He used a student grade of paint because of his financial limitations. In some paintings certain areas of overpainting, e.g. foreground foliage, is now badly cracked, due to incorrect technical procedure (this is not uncommon in oil painting and is also present in works by Matisse and Picasso).

Criticism and recognition

Because of his naive style, Rousseau had many critics and often people were shocked by his work or ridiculed it. His ingenuousness was extreme, and he was not aware that establishment artists considered him untutored. He always aspired, in vain, to conventional acceptance. People said that he painted like a child and did not know what he was doing, but the work shows sophistication in his particular technique.

From 1886 he exhibited regularly in the Salon des Ind�pendants, and, although his work was not placed prominently, it drew an increasing following over the years. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891, and Rousseau received his first serious review, when the young artist Felix Vallotton wrote: "His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it's the alpha and omega of painting."

In 1905 a large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was exhibited with works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse in what is now seen as the first showing of The Fauves.

In 1907 he was commissioned by artist Robert Delaunay's mother, Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay, to paint The Snake Charmer.

Pablo Picasso saw a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over. Picasso instantly recognised Rousseau's genius and went to meet him. In 1908 Picasso held a banquet in his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau's honour � this was half serious, half burlesque. Some of Picasso's abstract people resemble Rousseau's 'childish' style.

His work The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), which shows a lion musing over a sleeping woman in eerie moonlight, is one of the best-known works of the modern era.

Death

Henri Rousseau died in 1910 and was interred in the Cimeti�re de Bagneux.

In 1911 a retrospective exhibition of Rousseau�s works was shown at the Salon des Ind�pendants. His paintings were also shown at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition.

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