Theft, Jungles & Naïveté: A Look at Henri Rousseau

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Tomorrow is the 164th birthday of the French painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau, also known as "Le Douanier" (the customs officer). Rousseau received no formal training, only began painting seriously as an adult, and was often criticized for his lack of skill, yet he's still being discussed in art classes and museums almost 100 years after his death. Some interesting tidbits about his life and work...

1. Henri Rousseau was arrested twice. At age 19, he was arrested for "an act of petty theft," for which he spent a month in jail and lost his job as an attorney's scribe. In 1907, 44 years after his first arrest, Rousseau was arrested for participation in a bank fraud. He was granted an early release to finish "Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo," according to some accounts, or, according to other accounts, simply because of his hapless naïveté, which he demonstrated with his paintings.

2. Pablo Picasso once discovered a Rousseau painting being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over. He realized Rousseau's genius and met with him soon after; the two became friends. Picasso later took several photos of Rousseau, including one that was a double-exposure of Rousseau in his studio and his painting, "Monkeys in the Jungle."

3. The nickname "Le Douanier" (the customs officer) was jokingly bestowed upon Rousseau by his friends because of his day job as a customs clerk collecting tolls. He never achieved the rank of "Douanier."

4. Though Rousseau's passion lay in painting, he also dabble in literature and music. He wrote a five-act play, "La Vengeance d'une orpheline russe," as well as a waltz, "Clémence," named for his first wife. After his retirement in 1893, he earned some extra money by playing a violin in the streets and giving children music lessons.

5. Rousseau never attended art school or received art instruction, stating that he had "no teacher other than nature." He did, however, receive "some advice" from more established painters. Most observers and critics in his day thought he painted like a child and didn't know what he was doing.

6. Although Rousseau is most famous for his jungle scenes and served 4 years in the army, he himself never traveled through jungles or exotic landscapes. He took inspiration from illustrated books, the botanical gardens in Paris, and "taxidermified" animals, as well as his army friends' stories of foreign lands.

A larger version of "Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)," one of Henri Rousseau's more famous paintings, is available here.

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May 20, 2008 - 11:37am
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