Henri Rousseau

Rousseau, Henri (äNrēˈ rōsōˈ) [key], 1844–1910, French primitive painter, b. Laval. He was entirely self-taught, and his work remained consistently naive and imaginative. Rousseau was called Le Douanier [the customs officer] because he held a minor post in the Paris customs service for more than 20 years before he retired to paint (1893). Although he claimed to have lived in Mexico in his youth, he later admitted that the claim was false. The only tropical vegetation Rousseau ever saw was in Parisian greenhouses, and his remarkable landscapes had no counterpart in nature. His painted jungles are an organized profusion of carefully defined yet fantastic plants, half-concealing various wild animals with startlingly staring eyes. These scenes are rendered in a vivid, almost hypnotic folk style. The finest ones include The Snake Charmer (1907; Louvre) and The Dream (1910; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City). With the same approach Rousseau employed in painting the familiar (e.g., Village Street Scene, 1909; Philadelphia Mus. of Art), he painted the haunting and dreamlike Sleeping Gypsy (1897; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City). His fantastic Gypsy sleeps in a nighttime desert, closely observed by a lion—the entire absurdity rendered in a compelling, straightforward manner. The painting thus combines the unique elements of Rousseau's art to their most startling effect. Rousseau exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants from 1886, but did not become well known until the early years of the 20th cent. when he was "taken up" by Picasso, Apollinaire, and other members of the Parisian avant garde.

See R. Shattuck, The Banquet Years (1958, repr. 1968); studies by D. Vallier (1964), D. C. Rich (1946, repr. 1970), G. Adriani (2001), and F. Morris, C. Green, and N. Ireson, ed. (2006).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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