Recently updated on October 25th, 2022 at 11:00 am
Although the painter Henri Rousseau was self-taught and had a brief artistic career, he created more than 25 so-called jungle paintings, and his style influenced many young artists at the end of the 20th century. He also created smaller depictions of Paris and its suburbs. According to him and some art historians, he created a new genre of portrait cityscapes.
His last painting, “The Dream,” was also his last jungle painting and was completed shortly before his death. Tragically, the world-famous painter Henri Rousseau died as a poor man, and his burial was attended by only seven of his friends. This article will tell you more about Henri Rousseau’s art and briefly give you his life story.
Henri Julien Félix Rousseau’s Life Story
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World-famous painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) was born in Laval, France. His father was a tinsmith, and Henri worked with him as a small boy. Henri attended Laval High School, where he was mediocre in most of his high school subjects but won many prizes for drawing and music.
After he had completed high school, he worked for a lawyer and even started to study law. However, he didn’t complete his studies and joined the army in 1863 for four years. When Rousseau’s father died in 1868, he moved to Paris to support his widowed mother.
In 1868, he married his landlord’s daughter, with whom he had nine children, of which only one survived. The others died of tuberculosis. In 1871, he was appointed the Collector of Taxes on goods entering Paris. In 1888, his wife died, and he married Josephine Noury in 1898.
He began painting seriously in his early forties, and in the early 1890s, he retired from his tax collector’s job to work only on his art. In August 1910, he was admitted to the Necker Hospital in Paris with gangrene in his leg, and after an operation, he died from a blood clot on 2 September 1910.
All about Henri Rousseau’s Art – the Beginning
Rousseau claimed he only had nature as his teacher. He didn’t receive formal training as a painter, although he admitted he had received “advice” from Felix Auguste-Clement and Jean-Leon Gerome, two established Academic painters.
Art historians agree that he was self-taught, and he is considered to be what is known as a naive or primitive painter. His best-known paintings are depictions of jungle scenes. Interestingly, he never left France or saw a jungle. Instead, he found inspiration in illustrated books and botanical gardens in Paris. He also studied “taxidermied jungle animals.”
The list of more than 25 Henri Rousseau jungle paintings includes “The Merry Jesters,” “In a Tropical Forest Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo,” “The Equatorial Jungle,” “The Repast of the Lion,” “The Flamingos,” “Exotic Landscape,” and “The Dream.”
But apart from Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings, he also created smaller depictions of the city and its suburbs. According to him, he created a new genre of portrait landscape. He would start the painting with a view of a part of the city and then depict a person in the foreground.
Image source: The Merry Jesters – Henri Julien Rousseau
More about Henri Rousseau’s Art
He started to exhibit in the Salon des Independents in 1886. The Henri Rousseau paintings were not placed prominently but drew many followers over the years. In 1891, Rousseau received his severe first review. However, it was a positive review about his “Tiger in a Tropical Storm.”
In 1893, he moved to Montparnasse, where he lived and worked until he died in 1910. One of his most famous artworks, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” was created in 1897. In 1905 the “Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope” was exhibited with young avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse. From then on, his works had a great influence on younger artists.
He also received commissions. In 1907, the artist Robert Delaunay’s mother commissioned him to paint “The Snake Charmer.”
The Dream – the Painting
“The Dream,” also a jungle painting, was the last painting Rousseau painted before his death and is deemed by many art critics as one of the best Henri Rousseau paintings. The painting is the largest of all his jungle paintings, measuring 6′ 8½” × 9′ 9½”.
It features a picture of Rousseau’s Polish mistress from his youth, Yadwigha. She is depicted lying on a divan. She is looking at a landscape of lush jungle foliage with lotus flowers and animals. The animals include birds, monkeys, a lion and lioness, an elephant, and a snake.
According to art scholars, the forms of the jungle plants are mainly based on Rousseau’s observations and interpretations of what he had seen at the Paris Museum of Natural History and its “Jardin des Plantes.” Rousseau’s composition of the scene shows the woman’s left arm reaching towards the lions and a black snake charmer. The snake charmer is playing his flute and is facing the viewer. The pink-bellied snake slithers through the plants and reflects the woman’s curves on the divan.
The Dream – Meaning and Style of the Painting
Rousseau suspected that some viewers would not understand the painting, so he wrote a poem to accompany the painting. The poem tells the story of Yadwigha, who has fallen asleep, and in her dream, she hears the snake charmer’s music and sees that all the flowers, animals, and even the snake are listening to the joyous tunes of the charmer’s reed instrument.
As one of the best Henri Rousseau paintings, it reflects Rousseau’s freedom from artistic convention. There is a mixture of domestic furniture with exotic jungle plants in the painting. He also mixed typical classicism with modern folk art. His style shows the multiple perspectives of Cubism combined with the imagery of Surrealism.
Image Source: The Sleeping Gypsy – Henri Julien Rousseau
The Dream – Road to the Museum of Modern Art, New York
“The Dream” was bought from Rousseau by the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard in February 1910. From March to May 1910, it was exhibited at the Salon des Independents. Unfortunately, this was only a few months before Rousseau’s death.
Sidney Janis, a well-known art collector, acquired the work in 1934, and in 1954, Janis sold it to Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rockefeller donated it to the Museum of Modern Art, New York when the museum celebrated its 25th anniversary. It is currently still on display in the museum.
Ironically, this self-taught artist, who would become the world-famous painter Henri Rousseau, died in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave with only seven of his friends around it.
The world-famous painter Henri Rousseau is perhaps not as well-known to amateur art lovers as many other famous painters. Still, it is worthwhile to study his works, especially his jungle paintings, including “the Dream.”