He never visited a jungle or traveled anywhere outside of France. He served time twice for petty theft and fraud. He was so poor that he purchased school grade art supplies, and resold his canvases for recycling. His artistic merits were ridiculed by his contemporaries, and his pauper’s funeral was attended by only 7 people. Yet Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings are among the best known works of European art, and Rousseau was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.
Henri Rousseau was born in the Loire Valley in France in 1844, the son of a tinsmith. He was relatively well-educated, and studied law and became a law clerk early in life. However, an arrest and conviction for petty theft soon put an end to that career, and, after a month in prison, he joined the army.
After his father’s death four years later, he was released from the army in order to support his mother. He did this by taking a job as a civil servant, serving as a clerk in the Customs Office for most of his life. At this time he was painting primarily as a hobby, and never took any formal training in the field.
When Rousseau was 49, he retired from his government job in order to paint full-time. His work — which today is considered imaginative and masterful — was at the time laughed at by nearly everyone. His style was what we would today call “primitive” or “naive”; at the time it was just a little too different from everyone else’s.
Rousseau’s personality no doubt was also the cause of some of his public ridicule. He cared deeply what the public thought of his work, even keeping a scrapbook of reviews, but it appears that he was not always able to correctly judge the meaning of his reviews. It was said that he often took sarcastic remarks literally, and interpreted ridicule as praise.
In a time when most artists confined themselves to a few select subjects, Henri Rousseau painted nearly everything: still lifes, genre paintings, portraiture, historical scenes, farm animals, and of course his famous jungle paintings. He claimed to have invented a new genre, the portrait landscape — a portrait of an individual or group painted in front of an extremely detailed background depicting a favorite city scene. He generally painted in layers, applying one color at a time, and used an astonishing number of hues. Some of his jungle paintings contain over 50 varieties of green.
Although Rousseau at one time claimed to have visited Mexico during his years in the army, the truth is that he never left France. His jungle scenes were inspired by his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes, a Paris botanical garden, animals seen in the Paris zoo or as represented in the works of taxidermists, illustrated books, and the accounts of soldiers who had served in Mexico. He once said to a friend of 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.”
Pablo Picasso was deeply impressed by the style of Henri Rousseau, and sought him out after accidentally stumbling across one of Rousseau’s works, which was being sold on the street as a “recyclable” canvas to be painted over. At one time Picasso even held a banquet in Rousseau’s honor. It appears that the banquet was only half-serious, but nevertheless, Rousseau was touched by the tribute.
Rousseau’s later years were not financially successful ones. He made almost no money from his painting. He received a small pension from his years of government work, and supplemented this with occasional part-time jobs and as a street violinist. Now widowed, he had developed an attachment for a woman named Leonie who apparently cared little for him, but was glad to accept expensive presents. His painting supplies had been largely obtained on credit.
A final humiliation occurred in 1907, when a man named Sauvagent tricked Rousseau into opening a bank account under a false name and taking out large amounts of money on credit. When Rousseau was caught, he served a month in prison, then was tried and convicted. He appeared a pathetic creature at his trial. His scrapbooks were read in evidence, and the ridicule in the reviews only added to his humiliation. Rousseau was fined 100 francs and given a two year suspended sentence.
Henri Rousseau died of gangrene of the leg, brought on by sores and neglect, on September 2, 1910. He had a pauper’s funeral, attended by 7 people, and was buried in a mass grave.