Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was an influential post-impressionist and primitivism painter known for his haunting representations of jungles and landscapes. The Canvas Art Factory collection is a mix of beautiful masterpieces that reflect...
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Henri Rousseau was an influential post-impressionist and primitivism painter known for his haunting representations of jungles and landscapes. The Canvas Art Factory collection is a mix of beautiful masterpieces that reflect the beauty of nature.

Painting in the style that became known as naïve, a French term often used to describe the work of self-taught artists, Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) was a master of depicting nature with bold colours and simple lines. Although he never sought admiration for his work—in fact, Henri Rousseau seemed almost unaware of it—his striking images are now revered as major works of art.

Early Life

Henri Rousseau was born in Laval, France, in 1844. After a brief stint in the French army, Rousseau worked as a toll collector in 1869. He obtained a permit to sketch in France’s national museums in 1884 and the following year, he submitted two paintings to the Salon des Champs-Elysees. From 1886 until he died in 1910, he exhibited every year at the Salon des Independants, where his work could be seen hanging amongst Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and others.    

It wasn’t until he reached his forties that Rousseau took his painting seriously; before that, he painted leisurely and when he had the time. Rousseau didn’t retire from government work until 1893. Upon retirement, Rousseau lived off his pension, from which he bought art supplies.

What were Henri Rousseau’s inspirations?

Henri Rousseau was inspired by a mixture of artworks and cultures. From academic sculptures to African tribal masks, postcards, tabloid illustrations, “primitive’ art forms, and traditional art forms. He often took trips to the Parisian public zoo and gardens. Although he is mostly self-taught, he received advice from two great French painters, Felix Auguste Clement and Jean-Leon Gerome. 

Like Johannes Vermeer never had to leave his hometown of Delft, Netherlands, to become a great painter, neither did Rousseau ever leave France. The jungles and deserts may have you believe he did travel across continents and reached exotic locations, but Rousseau had a wonderful imagination and express it beautifully. Of his visits to the Jardin des Plantes, Rousseau has said, “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.”


Rousseau’s paintings are distinct for their clean lines, bright and unconventional colours, lucid forms. They’re haunting and captivating one-point perspective paintings and lack correct proportions. Despite having a steady income as a toll collector, Rousseau had limited financial resources, resulting in his supplies being student quality paint. No matter the cheapness of these paints, Rousseau painted beautifully.

His paintings are the furthest thing from the classical paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt. For this unique style, he received much criticism. One of his critics claimed that “Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet with his eyes closed.” Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso and the Surrealists Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were taken by Rousseau’s work. After his death, the Abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky admired his work. Picasso first saw Rousseau’s work on the street, where it was being sold off as a canvas to be painted over and was impressed. Picasso was so taken by the painter that he hosted a dinner in honour of Rousseau.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891)

The first in a long series of jungle paintings is Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Despite never leaving France to see real jungles, Rousseau captures the wild nature of the jungle beautifully and transforms it into something surreal and haunting. The painting was on exhibition under the title Surprise! At the exhibition, like most of Rousseau’s work, the painting was mocked, and Rousseau was said to be a childish painter.

The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

A lion prowls close to a sleeping gypsy in The Sleeping Gypsy. At the time of the painting's creation, Rousseau was fascinated by gypsies, the Romany people. His contemporaries were also interested in this group of nomadic people who lived on the outskirts of society. The Sleeping Gypsy places the gypsy outside of society, sleeping on a plain in a dreamlike atmosphere. Rousseau may have depicted an African gypsy, who is wearing traditional dress. Contrasting with the culturally nomadic attire, the gypsy has a mandolin, an Italian stringed instrument.

The Dream (1910)

In Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, we witness a woman sleeping on the couch, dreaming of the forest. Paris’s Jardin des Plantes (Paris’s botanical garden and zoo) inspired the setting for Rousseau’s The Dream; he frequently visited the botanicals and projected his imagination onto the canvas. It’s believed inspiration came from other sources as Rousseau saw images from magazines, novels, and postcards for source material of the jungle. Rousseau even wrote a poem to accompany the painting. The Dream was exhibited at the Salon des Independants in 1910.

Reference List







https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80172 https://www.henrirousseau.net/the-sleeping-gypsy.jsp