In the overview of post-Impressionist European painting, Henri Rousseau is considered as the father of naïf painting for the ingenuity of his style.
Rousseau painted as a self-taught artist with the enthusiasm of a child, creating images with a primitive purity, with which he expressed his magic and poetic vision of the world.
Painting as the “buen retiro” of the soul
Born in 1844 in Laval, northern France, he moved to Paris in 1868. The city with the Eiffel Tower, appears in the background of the self-portrait he carried out in 1890, in which Rousseau portrayed himself as a painter who proudly holds a palette in his hand. Right on the palette is where the names of his two wives can be read: Clémence, the first wife, and Joséphine. Clémence married Rousseau in 1870 and gave him seven children; however, she died prematurely of phthisis, like all their kids; Joséphine disappeared three years after the creation of this self-portrait. The pain caused by this endless series of sorrows was soothed only by painting, in which Henri discovered his reason for living.
Henri Rousseau, Myself, Portrait -Landascape (Self portrait) , 1889-1890, Národní galerie di Praga.
The customs officer and the discovery of a passion
In 1871 Rousseau was hired as a public officer at the Paris Tax Office, from which he got the title of “Le Douanier” (meaning customs officer), with which the artist went down in history. During the long breaks that this work foresaw, Rousseau deceived the time by drawing and painting. But painting, originally born as a pleasure, soon turned into a true vocation. The artist obtained an early retirement, so he could devote himself entirely to his passion.
Though he hardly survived with his pension, Rousseau painted relentlessly and rounded up some money by giving music lessons, and in 1886 he debuted at the Salon des Indépendants. The artworks he exhibited, including A Carnival Evening, already displayed that stylistic freedom that marked his entire oeuvre. A freedom without academic constraints, mocked by the public and torn apart by the official critics, who didn’t tolerate the absence of perspective, the lack of proportions, and the simplicity of the flat shapes and clear outlines, both devoid of chiaroscuro.
The imaginary jungles
If in the 1880s Rousseau produced portraits and views of Paris, the recurring theme of the 1890s became tropical forests, populated by monkeys, jaguars, lions and leopards, represented as pets even in the bloodiest scenes. The compositional scheme of these jungles is always almost the same: two fighting animals at the center of a thick, excessive and improbable vegetation, represented with a meticulous attention to details. The sharpness and chromatic brightness of these paintings reveal the colorist talent of Rousseau, who used a wide variety of shades of green.
They are landscapes arose from the author’s imagination, in which the ferocity that dominates the world is replaced by a harmony that recomposes everything. As a result of the artist’s need to evade, these canvases reflect the desire for the exotic and the charm for the unknown, which tied the French culture of the time and pushed Paul Gauguin to travel to Polynesia. However, Rousseau never left France and, for these images, he drew inspiration from the numerous visits to the botanical garden of Paris, and from the illustrations on the postcards, magazines and books. Some of the artist’s masterpieces that fascinated surrealists for their prominent dream-like component and their visions date back to this period: the 1894 War and The Sleeping Gypsy from 1897.
Henri Rousseau, Monkeys in the Jungle, 1910, Portland Museum of Art
Despite the vast misunderstanding towards his artworks, Rousseau sparked the interest of the Parisian avant-garde, and among his few but loyal fans there were the young Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay, and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
The American Max Weber offered Rousseau to hold a personal exhibition in New York, but the artist died a little before the exhibit, in September 1910, after painting The Dream, his last masterpiece.