Henri Rousseau: Biography & Artwork

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The history of avant-garde arts is full of figures who were under-appreciated in their own times, but whose works had major impacts on art history. In this lesson, we'll look at one of those artists and explore a few of his paintings.

Henri Rousseau

They say that genius is rarely appreciated in its own time. The history of art continuously affirms the accuracy of that statement, with more than a few now-famous artists dying with hardly any recognition. One of those stories comes from the life of Henri Rousseau, a French artist who helped inspire a generation of modern artists at the turn of the 20th century. While critics of the time largely ignored him, art historians have reached a different conclusion: the man was a genius.

Early Life

Henri Rousseau was born to an average French family in 1844. In 1868, he moved to Paris and got a job as a toll collector on the roads leading into the city. In Paris, Rousseau was exposed to bustling city life, the major metropolitan zoos and gardens, and most importantly, the art galleries. In his free time he sketched plants at the botanical gardens. He then started teaching himself to paint by copying the great works of the masters that hung in the museums.

Rousseau as an Artist

Unlike the realistic paintings of the European elite artists with their perfect use of perspective to represent depth, Rousseau's self-taught style was flatter, with harder lines and dramatic forms. He started displaying his work with the Society of Independent Artists around 1886, although the academic salons refused to accept his paintings.

In 1893, Rousseau left his job as a toll collector and started painting full time. He was 49 years old. While academic critics continued to mock or dismiss him, Rousseau's works caught the eyes of France's avant-garde community. They called him Le Douanier, the custom's officer (a reference to his former job as a toll collector), and began to praise his self-taught style that challenged the conventions of fine art. Some of Rousseau's greatest admirers included the young Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky. Both would later cite Rousseau as having influenced their work.


Henri Rousseau died in 1910, having made very little money with his art. However, his work would live on in the generation of artists who were inspired by him. Rousseau had entered the art scene just as the Impressionist movement was starting to wane. It had been a very avant-garde movement, but by 1890 many were looking for new ways to redefine art. We call them the Post-Impressionists. Post-Impressionist artists like Rousseau helped bridge the gap between Impressionism and the truly modernist movements of the 20th century.

While each artist had their own impact, Rousseau was the embodiment of what the avant-garde community called the naive artist, meaning that he was self-taught. According to these artists, the best way to break from the traditions of Western art was to examine artists who had never learned the traditions of modern art. Most looked to indigenous art from places like Africa or Polynesia, but Rousseau represented a homegrown alternative. His flattened, graphic style broke from the norms of perspective depth and reduced complex scenes into simpler shapes, yet still captured deep and primal senses of emotion. It was an important step in the movement towards the modernist ideas of the cubists, surrealists, and abstract artists of the decades to come.

Major Works

Surprised! (Tiger in a Tropical Storm) (1891)

Henri Rousseau painted many important works throughout his lifetime, but a few serve to really embody his signature style. The first painting he displayed that really captures the naïve style of French Post-Impressionism was Surprised! (Tiger in a Tropical Storm). Debuting in 1891, the painting displays a tiger in a tropical jungle. The use of a wild predator and remote jungle serve to create a primal sense of emotion, speaking of dread and danger.

Surprise! Tiger in a Tropical Storm

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

Rousseau's style continued to evolve, later resulting in the 1897 masterpiece The Sleeping Gypsy. The clothing of the gypsy and presence of the lion again create an exotic feel, heightened by the non-Western flatness of the scene and distancing it from the traditions of Western art. The actual gypsy sleeps peacefully, unaware of the potential threat as she slumbers. It is simultaneously foreboding and comforting, harmonious and dissonant. Again, that sense of primal emotion becomes a hallmark of the painting.

The Sleeping Gypsy

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