Henri Rousseau

Dafato Team | Aug 23, 2023

Table of Content


Henri Rousseau, also called "Le Douanier Rousseau", born on May 21, 1844 in Laval (Mayenne) and died on September 2, 1910 in Paris, is a French painter, considered a major representative of the naive art.

Coming from a modest family, he studied law before moving to Paris and working at the octroi where he held a position as a second class clerk, controlling the entry of alcoholic beverages into Paris. This position earned him the nickname "Douanier".

He taught himself to paint and produced a large number of paintings. They often represent jungle landscapes, although he never left France. His inspiration came mainly from illustrated books, botanical gardens, and meetings with soldiers who had participated in the French intervention in Mexico.

His paintings show an elaborate technique, but their childish appearance earned him much ridicule. A regular at the Salon des Indépendants, he began to receive positive reviews in 1891 and met a few other artists in his later years, including Marie Laurencin, Robert Delaunay, Paul Signac, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Alexandre Cabanel, Edgar Degas, William Bouguereau, Paul Gauguin, Alfred Jarry, Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. His work is now considered crucial to naive art and has influenced many artists, including surrealists.

Paul Éluard said of him, "What he saw was only love and will always make our eyes wonder."

Born into a modest family, he was the fourth child of Julien Rousseau (1808-1868), a tinsmith, and Éléonore Guiard. He attended elementary school and high school in Laval (where he received a prize for drawing) from 1849 to 1850, but was sent to boarding school in 1851 because of the bankruptcy of his father's business, which forced his parents to move several times. Not very gifted for studies, he became a lawyer's clerk in Nantes from 1860 to 1863. Having stolen a sum of 20 francs from his employer, the lawyer Fillon, he was sentenced to one year in prison for theft and breach of trust. To escape from the juvenile reformatory, he signed a seven-year voluntary commitment in the army and was assigned to the 51st infantry regiment in Angers. He was released in 1868 following the death of his father and joined Paris.

He got married on August 14, 1869 in the 7th district of Paris to his first wife Jeanne Désirée Clémence Boitard (1850-1888) with whom he had nine children, eight of whom died before 1886. He first worked as a clerk for a bailiff and then, after the 1870 war, joined the Octroi de Paris as a second class clerk (not as a customs officer). This organization collected taxes on goods entering Paris.

In 1872, he began his career as a painter as a self-taught artist of formidable candor and, as a follower of spiritualism, he was convinced that the spirits guided his brush. He obtained a copyist's card at the Louvre Museum, which allowed him to familiarize himself with the masterpieces. His entry into the artistic life is therefore relatively late. He tried unsuccessfully to exhibit at the official Salon in 1885 and it was only in 1886 that he participated in the Salon des Indépendants, thanks to the absence of an entry jury. He exhibited four paintings, including An Evening at the Carnival, which attracted little attention. For a long time, they were misunderstood and sarcastically criticized by critics and his contemporaries who considered him a "Sunday painter. It was Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) who gave him the nickname of "Douanier" when he learned that his friend held the position of "guardian of the control and circulation of wine and alcohol" at the Paris octroi office, a nickname that the critics of the time used to mock him.

However, his fame increased over the years and he continued to participate each year in the Salon des Indépendants. In 1891, he showed his first "jungle painting", Surpris! depicting the progress of a tiger in a luxuriant bush. This work was particularly appreciated by the painter Felix Vallotton, who spoke of it as "the alpha and omega of painting".

His first wife Clémence Boitard died of tuberculosis on May 7, 1888 at the age of 37 at their home at 135 rue de Sèvres in the 6th arrondissement of Paris and was buried on May 10, 1888 in the Montparnasse cemetery and his financial situation became difficult. He hosted the writer Alfred Jarry for a while and retired from the octroi office in 1893, to devote himself to painting, which did not bring him enough income to live on. He then gave violin lessons and wrote several plays.

He remarried on September 2, 1899 in the 15th arrondissement of Paris to the widow of Olivier Le Tensorer (1851-1895), Rosalie Joséphine Nourry (1852-1903), who died on March 14, 1903 at the age of 51 at the marital home 36 rue Gassendi in the 14th arrondissement of Paris.

Little by little, he is recognized and appreciated by avant-garde painters such as André Derain or Henri Matisse. He became friends with Robert Delaunay, Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso.

In 1901, he became a drawing teacher at the Association Philotechnique, a secular organization that employed him as a drawing and painting teacher, which was a real social success for him. In 1905, a homonym of the Douanier having received the Palmes académiques, he was awarded them by mistake in the directory of the Association Philotechnique and let believe that he was himself a beneficiary, hanging the badge on the lapel of his jacket, as can be seen in his self-portraits.

Arrested in November 1907 for having been drawn into a shabby business of swindling by a friend, Louis Sauvaget, an accountant in a branch of the Bank of France, he was incarcerated in the prison of La Santé from December 2 to 31, 1907. Tried on January 9, 1909 at the Seine Court of Assizes, he was sentenced to a two-year suspended prison term and fined 100 francs.

In 1908 Picasso gave a banquet at the Bateau-Lavoir, a famous artists' residence at 13 place Émile Goudeau in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, in honor of the Douanier Rousseau, present, among others: Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin and André Salmon. It is there that Rousseau has the word of the end, by slipping in the ear of Picasso: "In sum, you and I are the greatest painters; me in the modern genre, you in the Egyptian genre.

In 1909, he finally sold some paintings to the merchant Ambroise Vollard, for more than 1,000 francs, which allowed him to buy a studio at No. 2 bis of the rue Perrel, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, where he was nicknamed the "Master of Plaisance.

On September 2, 1910, he died of gangrene in his leg at the Necker Hospital in Paris, which registered him as an "alcoholic. With his friends absent, seven people, including Paul Signac (1863-1935) representing him as president of the Society of Independent Artists and Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), followed his coffin to the Parisian cemetery of Bagneux where - penniless - he was buried in a common grave.

On March 2, 1912, Delaunay and his wife Sonia Stern (ex-wife of Wilhelm Uhde), Armand Queval (1866-1932) a moldmaker-statuary who had been his last lodger, Appollinaire, and the collector Wilhelm Uhde (1874-1947) contributed to have his remains laid to rest in a thirty-year concession (avenue des Tilleuls argentés, 95th division) on which a medallion of Armand Queval is placed. On this occasion Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) wrote an epithaph in chalk that was later engraved by the sculptors Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1956) and Julio Ortiz de Zárate (1885-1943) :

We salute you Kind Rousseau you hear us Delaunay, his wife, Monsieur Queval and I Let our luggage pass free at the door of heaven We will bring you brushes, colors and canvases So that your sacred leisure in the real light You devote them to painting as you will draw my portrait The face of the stars.

On October 12, 1947, at the initiative of the Association of Friends of Henri Rousseau, his remains were transferred to Laval, his hometown, in the garden of the Perrine, where he still rests; on his tombstone is engraved a long epitaph inscribed in chalk by Apollinaire and the painter is depicted in profile in a bronze medallion, the work of the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși.

During his lifetime, he painted nearly 250 pictures, of which about 100 are lost, many of them having been given as payment to his grocer, his laundress or his car salesman.

To paint, he strives to reproduce what he sees and tries to make what he sees coincide with what he knows of the facts. Exoticism abounds in his work even though Rousseau almost never left Paris. His exoticism is imaginary and stylized, coming from the Jardin des Plantes, the Jardin d'Acclimatation, the illustrated magazines and the botanical magazines of the time. He was criticized for his frontal portraits of frozen characters, his lack of perspective, his bright colors, his naivety and clumsiness, but "the nostalgic of childhood, the trackers of the marvelous and all those who wanted to sail away from the norms got excited. They saw in this customs officer a ferryman, a man on the edge between reason and fantasy, between civilization and savagery. The vigorous stylization of his paintings recalls the Italian primitives who give a dimension to objects according to their emotional importance.

Great loner, he is the object of incessant mockery but the avant-garde artistic circles are delighted by "... the thirty shades of green of his inextricable forests, where the holly, the cactus, the paulownia, the chestnut tree, the acacia, the lotus or the coconut tree are mixed without concern for verisimilitude... Picasso bought from a second-hand dealer an imposing and strange portrait of a woman that he kept all his life " (Éric Biétry-Rivierre). Original colorist, with a rough but precise style, he influenced the naive painting.

Rousseau's work momentarily slowed down the progression of artistic research carried out by the Italian Futurist painters, who returned to naïve painting for a short period before the polymaths.

The "jungles

It is one of the most fertile themes of the painter that he continues until his death.

Always in an exuberant and totally invented flora (witness the numerous banana bunches hanging from each branch, or the disproportion of the foliage), he stages ferocious fights between a wild animal and its prey (except in Tigre combattant un nègre), or on the contrary, a more peaceful portrait of a large animal, such as the monkeys in Les Joyeux Farceurs in 1906. These animals were inspired by those in the menagerie of the Jardin d'Acclimatation and by magazines.

In his last "jungles", he represented characters (in The Snake Charmer and The Dream) in harmony with nature. Initially criticized for their lack of realism and naivety, his "jungles" would later be recognized as models by all, hence Guillaume Apollinaire's statement at the Salon d'Automne where Rousseau exhibited Le Rêve: "This year, no one laughs, all are unanimous: they admire."

The landscapes

They are either vegetal, timeless, representing places he knows well (banks of the Oise), or more urban. They often include details related to the technical progress of his time: airship, telegraph poles, metal bridges, the Eiffel Tower. These landscapes remain however in a naive tone. Indeed, Rousseau does not show any notion of perspective.

The portraits

The characters are frozen, in front, their faces mostly inexpressive. If there are several of them, they are represented simply juxtaposed. They appear massive, gigantic in comparison with the elements of the decor, but this seems to be a consequence of the fact that the painter did not master the representation of perspective (or that he used, without knowing it, the meaningful perspective of the Middle Ages). Indeed, the landscape is almost on the same level as the subject, with its abundance of details, but with an absent perspective. His portraits are mostly nameless, even if there are clues to identify the character, for example Pierre Loti in his Portrait of Mr. X (1910, KunstHaus Zürich). Similarly, the first portrait the painter painted, depicting a woman emerging from a wood, seems to be that of his first wife, Clemence.

His writings

He has in his relations as many painters as writers. Among the latter, we can mention, besides Alfred Jarry and Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and André Breton. He wrote several plays:

He also wrote several short explanatory texts or poems about some of his works, notably for his Sleeping Bohemian (1897).

The Douanier-Rousseau High School in Laval has been named after him since 1968.


From Customs Rousseau to Seraphine, the great naive masters. With Michel Lhéritier, Musée Maillol From October 19, 2019 at 11:00 am to December 7, 2019 at 5:45 pm.

References in popular culture

Serge Gainsbourg evokes it in his song Lemon Incest, when he says of his daughter that she is "as naïve as a painting by niédoisseaurou" ("Douanier Rousseau" in slang).

The Creole Company has dedicated a song to him: Vive le Douanier Rousseau, notably present in 2016 in the soundtrack of the film Apnea.


In French, by date of publication :

In English:

In Spanish:


  1. Henri Rousseau
  2. Henri Rousseau
  3. Il a trois sœurs ainées, Marie, Éléonore et Henriette et un frère cadet, Jules.
  4. ^ a b c Cornelia Stabenow (2001). Rousseau. Taschen. pp. 7–8. ISBN 978-3-8228-1364-5.
  5. ^ Henri Rousseau, (1979), Dora Vallier
  6. ^ Karen Lee Spaulding (ed.) Masterworks at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, (1999), first published as 125 Masterpieces from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1987). Hudson Hills Press / Albright-Knox Art Gallery. p. 72. ISBN 978-1555951696
  7. a b Fauchereau, Serge, ed. (2007). «Henri Rousseau o La banlieu premetafísica. Juan Manuel Bonet». Entorno al art brut. Madrid, España. p. 101. ISBN 978-84-86418-92-2.  |fechaacceso= requiere |url= (ayuda)
  8. Fauchereau, Serge, ed. (2007). «Henri Rousseau o La banlieu premetafísica. Juan Manuel Bonet». Entorno al art brut. Madrid, España. p. 99. ISBN 978-84-86418-92-2.  |fechaacceso= requiere |url= (ayuda)
  9. Fauchereau, Serge, ed. (2007). «Henri Rousseau o La banlieu premetafísica. Juan Manuel Bonet». Entorno al art brut. Madrid, España. p. 100. ISBN 978-84-86418-92-2.  |fechaacceso= requiere |url= (ayuda)
  10. «Catalogue des Œuvres Exposées». Catalogue de peinture, sculpture, dessin, gravure, architecture et art décoratif [Catálogo de pintura, escultura, dibujo, grabado, arquitectura y artes decorativas] (en francés). París, Francia. 1905. p. 150. Consultado el 20 de noviembre de 2016.
  11. a b Keay 1976 ↓, s. 8.
  12. a b Keay 1976 ↓, s. 22.

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