Untrained Genius of Jungle Canvases
When you dive into the colorful world of art history, Henri Rousseau is a name that stands out. Known as “le Douanier” (“the Customs Officer”) due to his occupation as a tax collector, Rousseau’s artistic journey is anything but ordinary. Without formal art education, he created canvases alive with dense, mysterious jungles and whimsical dream scenes, even though he never ventured beyond the borders of his native France. Rousseau’s untutored brilliance blazed its own trail, paving the way for the forthcoming wave of modern art.
Rousseau was born on May 21, 1844, in Laval, a town in northwest France. He wasn’t an outstanding student and left school early, opting to join the military. During his service, Rousseau met soldiers who had been to Mexico. Their tales of this tropical land ignited his imagination, and jungle landscapes later became a defining theme in his art. Many assumed Rousseau had traveled to Mexico, given the authenticity of his jungle paintings. In truth, he never left France.
Henri Rousseau, 1907
At 24, after his military days, Rousseau moved to Paris. He took up work as a tax collector, but in his spare time, he painted. Instead of attending art school, Rousseau studied paintings in Paris museums and sketched in gardens.
Throughout his career, Rousseau’s style remained notably consistent. Like his fellow Naïve artists, his works often exhibited unconventional scale and perspective. Yet, he saw himself as a Realist painter. This self-assured identity as a professional artist shines through in an early piece, Myself, Portrait – Landscape (1890). In it, he confidently portrays himself, equipped with a brush and palette and wearing a beret, against a quintessential Parisian backdrop.
Henri Rousseau. Myself: Portrait – Landscape, 1890. National Gallery, Prague.
Upon retiring from his customs agent role at 49, Rousseau wholeheartedly embraced his passion for art. It was during this period that he crossed paths with the writer Alfred Jarry, who affectionately nicknamed him “Le Douanier.” Through Jarry, Rousseau met luminaries of the Parisian art and literary avant-garde, including icons like Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Marie Laurencin. They all became admirers of his distinctive work.
Henri Rousseau. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), 1891. National Gallery, London
Henri Rousseau. The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897. MoMA, New York.
Compared to the refined art of the 19th century, Rousseau’s paintings might appear rudimentary. His characters often looked off, his use of color was unique, and he struggled with painting feet. However, as an outsider, Rousseau wasn’t confined by typical art conventions. He took traditional art forms and infused them with his own style. This approach made him a polarizing figure, drawing both criticism and accolades. Ultimately, his unique jungle scenes earned him widespread recognition. He produced most of these masterpieces in the last six years of his life before passing away in 1910 at the age of 66.
Henri Rousseau. The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, 1905. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen.
Henri Rousseau. The Dream, 1910. MoMA, New York.
Henri Rousseau’s magnum opus, The Dream from 1910, stands as one of his most iconic and celebrated works. In this composition, Rousseau integrates mismatched elements: a reclining nude against the lush backdrop of a thriving jungle. As the woman lounges on her sofa, her gaze is fixated on the dense greenery surrounding her. It conveys a feeling of her transitioning into a dreamscape, a domain molded by her imagination and desires.
Why did I paint a couch in the middle of the jungle? Because one has a right to paint one’s dreams.
Though Rousseau never profited from his art, his distinct style transformed how subsequent artists approached their craft. Some even argue that modern art would not have been the same if Rousseau had attended art school.
Henri Rousseau, dubbed “le Douanier” (“the Customs Officer”) due to his tax collector job, was a standout figure in art history. Despite no formal training and never leaving France, he painted vivid jungle scenes inspired by stories of Mexico. With a unique and unconventional Naïve style, he both faced criticism and earned acclaim. His masterpiece, The Dream from 1910, is among his most celebrated. Although he never gained financially, Rousseau’s influence profoundly shaped modern art’s trajectory.
Words of wisdom
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” ―Herman Melville
“I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” ―Abraham Lincoln
“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” ―Allen Ginsberg
“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”―Ralph Waldo Emerson