Henri Rousseau is perhaps the most outstanding painter who never received a proper education in art. Although he was considered an unworthy artist by most critics and people during his lifetime, he is now considered a self-taught genius. Here are 10 interesting facts about the creator of masterpieces like ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’.
#1 Henri Rousseau committed perjury in his teens
Henri Julien Felix Rousseau was born on May 21, 1844 in the French town of Laval. At the age of nineteen he started studying law and worked for a lawyer. However, his career path changed when he committed a perjury (lying under oath) and was arrested. To avoid serving a jail sentence, Henri enlisted in the French army for seven years’ service in 1863. However he still had to serve one month’s sentence.
#2 His first wife was Clemence Boitard
Henri’s father died in 1868 and he was discharged from the army. He never saw combat during his four year stint. To support his widowed mother, Henri moved to Paris. A year later, he married the 15 year old Clemence Boitard, who was the daughter of his landlord.
#3 His personal life was marred by tragedies
Henri and Clemence went on to have six children but only one of them, Julia, survived till adulthood. Clemence died in 1888 which affected Henri deeply. In 1898, Rousseau married the widow Josephine Noury but she too died only four years later.
#4 Henri Rousseau was nicknamed ‘Le Douanier’ or ‘the customs man’
In 1871, shortly after his first marriage, Henri was hired by Paris Octroi where his job was to collect tax on goods entering Paris. The job contained long periods of free time which probably gave Henri an opportunity to focus on his art. Also, it was due to this job that Henri’s acquaintances later jokingly referred to him as ‘Le Douanier‘ or ‘the custom man‘. Actually, Henri never achieved the rank of ‘Douanier’.
#5 ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’ is one of Rousseau’s most famous artworks
Henri’s superiors and fellow workers at Paris Octroi supported his artistic pursuits and in 1893, at the age of 49, Rousseau was allowed to retire from his work and was able to dedicate himself to his art. In 1897, Rousseau painted The Sleeping Gypsy. This fantastical depiction of a lion musing over a sleeping woman on a moonlit night is one of the most recognizable artworks of modern times.
#6 Picasso discovered Rousseau’s genius in a junk shop
In 1900, Pablo Picasso discovered one of Rousseau’s paintings in a Paris junk shop. He bought the painting and later went to meet the artist. 8 years later, in front of this painting, Henri received a tribute in Picasso’s studio from the Paris avant-garde. Although the banquet was basically a joke, it introduced Rousseau to the Paris avant-garde and he went on to become the most outstanding representative of naïve art.
#7 He participated in bank fraud at the age of 63
Henri Rousseau spent his life in poverty. In 1907, when he was 63, a musician acquaintance of his, Louis Savaget persuaded him to participate in bank fraud. It is uncertain whether Henri was tricked into participating in the fraud or he did it willingly. Whatever the case, he used his reputation of being unworldly as his defense. His friends also testified to his claim which convinced the authorities and hence Henri was released from jail.
#8 Rousseau is famous for his highly individualistic painting style
Although Rousseau received some advice from two established artists, Felix Auguste Clement and Jean-Leon Gerome, he was essentially self-taught. This often gave a childlike quality to his paintings. Also, as he didn’t study art under any teacher’s supervision or by any set method; he developed a personal style of painting which was highly individualistic. Henri famously remarked that he had ‘no teacher other than nature‘.
#9 His work was ridiculed in his lifetime
During his lifetime Rousseau’s work was mostly ridiculed by the public and rejected by the critics who considered it childish and flat. Ultimately, it was the younger generation of artists, who understood his genius. Later, Rousseau’s work exerted an “extensive influence … on several generations of vanguard artists, starting with Picasso and including Jean Hugo, Léger, Beckmann and the Surrealists.” Today Rousseau is famous for his individualistic style and is considered the greatest naïve artist.
#10 ‘The Dream’ is Rousseau’s most famous painting
On September 2, 1910, Henri Rousseau died of blood poisoning that resulted from an infected leg wound. A few months before his death, he exhibited his final painting The Dream, the largest of his many jungle paintings. The Dream was later much celebrated by the Surrealists, whose art valued surprising juxtapositions and dream-like moods. It is now considered Rousseau’s masterpiece.