The French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau left our world for another on this day in 1910, at the age of sixty-six. Without doubt he ought to be remembered for his enchanting, direct compositions. Though, personally, it is the unlikely fact that Rousseau ever set a paint-dipped brush to an easel that endears him so to the history of art.
You see, Rousseau was born in Laval, France, the son of a plumber. A son fully expected to take up his father’s pragmatic trade. When business went belly up, the elder Monsieur Rousseau began working as a debt collector, and most ironically, the family’s house was eventually seized due to his insufficient attempts at bread winning. The younger Rousseau in question finished high school in a bedraggled manner, an utterly average pupil. Upon completing his lackluster education, the young man worked under a lawyer with the intention of one day practicing himself. Instead, he wound up committing perjury and enlisting in the army to escape incarceration. He served his country for four years, and moved to Paris upon the death of his father, when his widowed mother required both financial and emotional support. In time, he, too, became a tax collector on goods entering Paris, and wed the fifteen year-old daughter of his landlord, Clémence Boitard, with whom he had six children. Rousseau outlived his first young wife along with five of kids, and married his second bride, Josephine Noury, in 1898.
Unlike some of his other creative-minded compatriots, like Jacques-Louis David and Rosa Bonheur, who spent their formative years in France’s most stringent academies of the fine arts, getting proper technique, perspective and polish drilled into their bodies of work, Rousseau didn’t really begin dabbling in painting until his forties. He never received any semblance of formal training, and is thus often considered a champion of self-taught, primitive, and naïve art, although he did fess up to receiving some kind, painterly advice from the talented likes of Jean-Léon Gérôme. Despite a late and amateur start, Rousseau did turn full-time painter at forty-nine and remained prolific even during the last year of his life.
What I love best about Rousseau’s work, like many of his admirers today (he was largely battered by mainstream critics’ reviews in life), are his jungle scenes which burst with lush foliage and a sense of creeping, crawling life. What I love even more, is that Rousseau never once left France, never set foot in the steaminess under a towering rainforest canopy. Rousseau’s most popular efforts were wrought of pure imagination and fantasy. Viewers are confronted with his hopeful expectations of, and quite possibly his yearning for, the wider world— emerald tree lines heavy with fruit, spotted with jewel-toned birds and curious monkeys. Also drawn out is Rousseau’s wariness of things untamed and unknown; a wildcat savages an unfortunate passerby of a human tribe, a snake charmer pipes mysterious notes in the deepening darkness and calls forth venomous minions. While some artists seem more keen to display their mastery of line, shape and form, Rousseau seemingly just longed to show us what reveries lurked inside his head. And so, without further ado, I present a handful these particularly exotic, emotive works for inspection:
Everyone sees differently, of course, but when I gaze upon Rousseau’s works, I spy a charming linear innocence, a vivid stylised freshness that rightfully attracted the attention of many later rebellious, experimental artists. I see flat-yet-expressive ferocity and flights of fancy that veer far away from haughtiness; all of which makes me want to grab some pots of paint and spill my own inner musings onto canvas, and to encourage others to do the same. For as Rousseau— affectionately nicknamed “Le Douanier” (the customs agent) for his square government job— so aptly demonstrated, art is open to everyone who is open to art, and the most unassuming among us likely have spectacular visions to share.
Source: Roberta Smith, “Henri Rousseau: In imaginary jungles, a terrible beauty lurks”, The New York Times, 2006// Dora Vallier, Henri Rousseau, 1979