Born in Laval, France on May 21, 1844, Henri Rousseau is considered to be the archetype of the self-taught artist and one of the first of the Naïve or Primitive artists. Following high school, Rousseau worked for a lawyer and studied law but joined the army in 1863 after committing a minor perjury. In 1868, Rousseau moved to Paris after the death of his father and took a job with the Paris government as a custom’s official.
Rousseau took his own art very seriously, however, many critics at the time often ridiculed his work as childish and untutored. Today, Rousseau is celebrated for his dream like jungle paintings with their bold and primitive style, incredibly detailed with lush animal and plant life. His exotic scenes did not originate from any worldly travels. In fact, Rousseau never left France. His paintings were based on images adapted from printed sources, and from visits to the Paris Natural History Museum, and the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden and zoo.
Rousseau retired from work in 1893 to devote more time to painting and supplemented his income with a variety of part-time jobs including teaching painting and drawing. In the same year, he moved to Montparnasse, a centre for artistic activity in Paris.
As his career progressed, Rousseau exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1905 where he met Avant-Garde artists such as Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay, Picasso and others. Unfortunately, on September 2, 1910, as his work was beginning to gain recognition, Rousseau, died after suffering from an infected leg wound.
It is a shame that the conservative critics of Rousseau’s time could not see the value in his works. At least he had the Society of Independent Artists who held exhibitions that Rousseau could take part in. Today, his paintings are considered genius to some and influential to several generations of artists and movements of the 20th century. I have seen “The Dream” (shown below) at the MOMA in New York. Its richness and depth of colour and expression drew me into Rousseau’s “Dream,” and kept me there for quite some time.