Art History Lab

From Odd Jobs to Artistic Fame: The Inspiring Story of Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau: The Self-Taught Artist Who Shocked the Art World

Henri Rousseau is not your typical artist. Poor and uneducated, he was never trained in art.

Instead, he worked odd jobs and served in the military for most of his life. Yet, despite his humble beginnings, Rousseau went on to become a prominent figure in the art world, admired and respected for his unique style of painting.

Childhood and Early Training

Henri Rousseau was born in Laval, France on May 21, 1844. He was the third of four children and grew up in a family that struggled financially.

His father was a plumber and his mother was a homemaker. Rousseau attended Laval High School, but dropped out at age 14 to work.

In his free time, Rousseau would sketch and draw, honing his artistic skills. At age 18, he moved to Paris where he worked a variety of jobs, including a toll collector, a clerk, and a street cleaner.

Despite his lack of formal training, Rousseau continued to draw and paint in his spare time. In 1863, at the age of 19, Rousseau was drafted into the military and spent the next seven years serving in Algeria and Mexico.

During this time, he continued to sketch and create art, even using his military pay to purchase art supplies.

Mature Period

After leaving the military in 1871, Rousseau started entering his paintings in art contests. He continued to work odd jobs, but his passion for art was becoming increasingly evident.

In 1884, one of his paintings was accepted into the prestigious salon de Paris, a major art exhibition in France. It wasn’t until 1886, when Rousseau was 42 years old, that he decided to become a full-time artist.

His work began to gain recognition, and in 1893 his painting “Myself, Portrait-Landscape” was hung in the prestigious World’s Fair in Chicago. During this period, Rousseau became famous for his tropical paintings, which were inspired by his imagination and not by actual places he had visited.

He was often criticized for his amateurish style, which some felt lacked the sophistication of trained artists. However, he remained committed to his style and continued to paint what he loved.

Later Period

Despite his growing reputation as an artist, Rousseau was still struggling financially. In 1905, he had a solo exhibition in Paris, which was a complete failure.

Some critics praised his work, but most were unimpressed. It wasn’t until Pablo Picasso, who admired Rousseau’s work, held a banquet in his honor that people really began to take notice.

Sadly, Rousseau’s life took a tragic turn in 1910 when his wife died. He became increasingly reclusive and his health began to deteriorate.

He died of a leg infection in 1910 at the age of 66, leaving behind a legacy as an innovative and talented artist. Important Examples of Henri Rousseau’s Paintings

Many of Rousseau’s most famous paintings feature exotic landscapes and animals, drawing from his vivid imagination.

Here are some notable examples of his work:

– “Myself, Portrait-Landscape” (1890): This self-portrait features Rousseau standing in front of the Eiffel Tower wearing an artist’s beret. It showcases his unique style and imagination.

– “Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm” (1891): This painting is one of Rousseau’s most famous works. It features a tiger in the middle of a tropical storm, with the leaves of the jungle blowing in the wind.

The painting caused controversy when it was first exhibited, with some critics calling it amateurish. – “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897): This painting depicts a sleeping gypsy woman lying on the desert sand, with a lion sitting beside her.

The painting is inspired by the Arabian Nights and is known for its dreamlike quality. – “The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope” (1905): This painting is an allegorical work inspired by the dioramas in zoological halls.

It features an antelope being attacked by a lion, with elements of both ancient and modern art. – “The Snake Charmer” (1907): This painting was commissioned by a collector who was interested in Indian art.

It features a snake charmer holding a flute, surrounded by a feline and other animals. The painting is known for its use of shadow and light.

– “The Dream” (1910): This painting depicts a nude woman lying in a woodland setting, surrounded by bright flowers and foliage. It features 22 different hues of green and was praised by artists such as Andre Breton and Andre Derain.


Henri Rousseau’s story is an inspiration for anyone who dreams of pursuing their passion, despite facing obstacles. Despite his lack of formal training, he persevered and created a style of painting that was all his own.

Today, his work is celebrated for its unique and imaginative qualities, and he is remembered as one of the great self-taught artists of all time. Henri Rousseau: A deeper look into his life and art

Henri Rousseau, the self-taught artist who became known for his unique style and vivid imagination, is an icon of art history.

Born into poverty and with little formal education, Rousseau overcame numerous obstacles to become one of the most respected and admired painters of his time. In this article, we will delve deeper into his life and work, with a special focus on three recommended books that offer further insight into the man and his art.

“Rousseau” by Cornelia Stabenow

Cornelia Stabenow’s biography on Henri Rousseau provides an in-depth look at the artist’s life, revealing the fascinating story of how he developed into a painter despite having no formal training. Stabenow examines Rousseau’s early years and how his artistic talents emerged despite spending most of his life working a variety of odd jobs.

She notes that Rousseau’s lack of formal training gave him the freedom to develop an incredibly personal and unique style. Stabenow delves into the idea of Rousseau as an autodidact, or a self-taught artist, and how this factored into his work.

She notes that Rousseau’s poor beginnings gave him a unique perspective on the world that informed his art. Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of Rousseau’s primitive style, which drew on childhood influences such as children’s book drawings and popular prints.

Stabenow also discusses how Rousseau’s painting style evolved over time, transitioning from an urban realism to a more dreamlike quality. She touches on the influence of other artists on Rousseau, including post-Impressionist painters like Paul Czanne and Vincent van Gogh.

“Henri Rousseau” by Christopher Green

Christopher Green’s book on Henri Rousseau focuses on the theme of primitivism in the artist’s work. Green notes that Rousseau’s style was often described as primitive or childlike, but that this was not necessarily a derogatory term.

Instead, Green argues that Rousseau was embracing a simplicity that he believed was missing from contemporary art. Green examines the artistic techniques that Rousseau used in his work, including his use of limpid hues and peaceful clarity.

He also discusses how Rousseau was celebrated by other modern painters who saw in his art the beginnings of an entirely new approach to painting. Green tackles the controversial issue of cultural appropriation in Rousseau’s work, noting that some have criticized the artist for perpetuating colonialist views of the “exotic” other in his paintings.

However, Green argues that Rousseau’s work was more about escapism and inspiration than anything else. Overview of Rousseau’s Tropical Paintings

Rousseau’s tropical paintings, for which he is perhaps best known, were inspired by his imagination and not by actual places he had visited.

His work often featured lush rainforests, exotic animals, and dreamlike landscapes. While some were critical of Rousseau’s amateurish style, others were captivated by the childlike quality of his work.

Rousseau’s tropical paintings were often inspired by his love of nature and his desire to escape the urban environment in which he lived. They represented a utopian vision of a lush and untamed paradise, free from the constraints of modern society.

Many of Rousseau’s tropical paintings have a whimsical quality, incorporating surreal elements that are reminiscent of his childhood influences. They are often infused with vivid colours and a sense of wonder that helps transport viewers to an entirely different world.


Henri Rousseau was a fascinating artist who overcame numerous obstacles to develop his unique painting style. His life and work continue to inspire artists around the world, offering a reminder that it is possible to create beauty and meaning even in the most challenging of circumstances.

By exploring the biographical and analytical work of authors like Cornelia Stabenow and Christopher Green, and examining Rousseau’s tropical paintings, we gain a deeper understanding of what makes his work so distinctive and enduring. In summary, Henri Rousseau’s life and work continue to inspire artists and art lovers all over the world.

Despite facing numerous obstacles and lacking any formal art training, he became recognized as a prominent figure in the art world for his unique and imaginative style. Through biographies and analytical works such as those of Cornelia Stabenow and Christopher Green, we can gain deeper insights into his life and art.

Rousseau’s tropical paintings were especially significant, as they offered a utopian vision of paradisiacal escapes, representing Rousseau’s love for nature and his desire to escape urbanity. His life serves as a reminder that despite any disadvantage, one can still follow his dream through perseverance and talent.

Rousseau’s lasting contribution to the art world is not just for his unique style and imagining but for his inspiration for future artists to explore and create.

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