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Henri Rousseau
b. 1844, Laval, France
d. 1910, Paris, France

Henri Rousseau was a self-taught French painter whose naïve paintings captured the imagination of a younger generation of artists, writers, and intellectuals, such as Pablo Picasso and Marie Laurencin. He was born in Laval, France to a family of modest financial means and served as an active-duty infantry member beginning in 1864, though he never saw combat nor left France during his time in the military.

In 1871, Rousseau secured a job as a clerk in a tollhouse along the Seine River in Paris. The river would later serve as inspiration for many of his landscapes, and the job likely provided him stretches of time that he used to draw and paint. Cultivating his newfound passion for art making, he obtained a permit to copy masterpieces at the Louvre in 1884. While initially rejected from the Salon des Beaux-Arts in 1886, Rousseau began exhibiting annually with the Groupe des Indépendants. By 1893, he received a government pension, took his early retirement at age 49, and embarked on a career in art full time. He retained the nickname “Le Douanier,” which translates to “customs officer,” for the rest of his life.

Rousseau was categorized as a “Naïf” artist due to his lack of formal training, but even his earliest works, such as La Citadel (1893), show a keen attention to detail and commitment to realism that can hardly be classified as amateurish. As his career progressed, his paintings increasingly displayed dual themes of patriotism and exoticism influenced by France’s military pursuits, urban modernization, and colonial expansion. Through numerous trips to Parisian museums, gardens, and zoos, Rousseau built up a vocabulary of foliage motifs that would later serve as a repertory for his renowned tropical paintings. Beyond his more formal inspirations are those he found within his own practice: he approached his work with a freer, more individual means of expression than many artists trained in the traditional art schools of France at the time. The combination of these elements imbued his unconventional and often fantastic compositions with a strangeness and eccentricity that unsettled many contemporary audiences, including important critics.

A younger generation of modern artists, including Picasso, Fernand Léger, Giorgio de Chirico, and Wassily Kandinsky, found romance and honesty in Rousseau's naïve style and cited Rousseau as inspiration in the development of their own artistic ideas. André Breton declared Rousseau a proto-Surrealist for the ethereal and peculiar qualities of his work; in 1910, Max Weber organized an exhibition of Rousseau’s work at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York City; and in 1911, Robert Delaunay organized his retrospective at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. It is clear that Rousseau’s lingering and enigmatic paintings—at once serene and unsettling, tranquil and disquieting—left an immediate impression on his contemporaries, and a lasting effect on the development of modern art.