France’s Laval is home to Henri Julien Félix Rousseau’s birthplace. Rousseau is regarded as one of the leading representatives of the naïve creative movement, exemplified by his creations’ spontaneity and simplicity. Midway through the 1880s, Rousseau gained notoriety in the Parisian art world when his work was displayed in the Hall of Independents, along with other notable post-impressionist painters, including Paul Signac and Paul Gauguin.
He was unable to receive academic art training because of his lowly background. He managed to develop his gift without receiving any formal training, but just with dedication and work. He was an arbitrary employee before dedicating himself entirely to painting. The War, The Snake Charmer, and The Sleeping Gypsy are three of his best-known compositions.
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The Artistry of Rousseau
In the meantime, Rousseau started painting in his own time. However, he never received a formal education in art; instead, he learned through copying works of art in Parisian art museums and by doing sketches in the town’s nature reserves and popular science museums.
Rousseau developed a unique style, maybe because he had not pursued art by any set curriculum or under the guidance of any master. Since he had not studied anatomy or perspective, his landscapes and sceneries frequently had a youthful or “naive” look; their vibrant colors, unclear spaces, unrealistic scale, and theatrical tension gave them a dreamy quality. In addition, Rousseau occasionally included aspects into his ideas that were influenced by artworks he had seen in museums or photographs he had encountered in books.
Rousseau was allowed to present his work at yearly shows arranged by the Société des Artistes Indépendants despite the fact that his art was neither appreciated nor understood by Paris’s traditional, official art world. From 1886 to the conclusion of his life, he contributed pieces to these public exhibitions. Established painters like Pissarro and Signac applauded his clear, passionate commitment to his particular style after viewing and appreciating his work.
His background and early works of art
He started painting and drawing towards the conclusion of the 1870s, later came into touch with the Parisian cultural scene, and attracted the interest of certain post-impressionist painters. His earliest known piece, The Carnival of Animals, which was displayed in 1886, demonstrates the influence of scholastic painting and its meticulous portrayal through vivid colors and muted tones.
One of the unique traits of Rousseau’s works is how the colors are used. He resigned from his job in the 1890s to concentrate on his creative output; by then, his work had come under criticism. However, with the publishing of several works in which the “naïve style” is represented, he started to attract the public’s attention as well as that of the impressionist and post-impressionist painters.
The first piece in this series was the self-portrait titled Myself: Portrait-Landscape (1890). It was followed by the painting Tiger in a tropical storm (1891) which is one of the best Henri Rousseau paintings. In this artwork, he used vibrant colors to depict the difficult time a tiger was experiencing when facing a tropical storm.
After a while, he presented the Centennial of Independence (1892), a piece that commemorated the anniversary of independence. Two years later, world-famous painter Henri Rousseau created The War (1894), an artwork that hinted at the horrors of war and included a field strewn with bodies and a floor with a wild appearance. The simple manner of the painting contrasted with the theme’s rawness. Among other painters working in the same aesthetic milieu, these pieces caught the eye of the impressionist Degas and post-impressionist Gauguin.
The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), one of his most delicate pieces, depicts a woman lying next to a lion in an artificial landscape, which alludes to the dream world, a theme regularly addressed in his works. It was displayed the following year after Boy on the Rocks (1895).
His other paintings
Rousseau’s art was loved and well-known in the early 20th century. Among his most notable fans were Picasso and Apollinaire, a poet who valued the lyrical manner in which he articulated himself in his canvases. The hungry lion attacking an antelope, The Snake Charmer, The Merry Jesters, Mandrill in the Jungle, The Equatorial Jungle, and The Dream are among Rousseau’s well-known paintings of jungle scenes from the mid-1900s that caught the public’s attention to detail and use of vibrant colors.
In these, the artist referred to the vanished natural paradise, which was shown as an exotic land. These pieces had a significant impact on later naïve artistic currents as well as other creative currents.
Painter Henri Rousseau created several portraits during this time, as well as urban vistas and images from daily life, such as weddings and athletic events, including The Girl with a Doll and The Football Players. His final piece, The Dream (1910), was an artwork in which he depicted a young woman dreaming exotically while lounging on a sofa. This piece is related to Snake Charmer and her paintings of jungle settings.
Following his passing, Rousseau’s fame grew, and in 1911 the Salon des Indépendants held a retrospective exhibition in his honor. Wassily Kandinsky, a painter, praised Rousseau in his Artistic journal Der Blue Reiter in 1912. In addition, Henri Rousseau is believed to have shaped the fantasy worlds of Surrealist painters like Delvaux and Ernst, igniting interest in naïve painting in the 20th century.
The growth of primitivism hindered his career in the latter years of his life. Rousseau passed away on September 2, 1910, capping a career marked by highs and lows. During his lifetime, Henri Rousseau wasn’t acknowledged seriously by academics, and only public acceptance of his writings has guaranteed that his reputation has endured until the present.