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The Naivete of Henri Rousseau

Was Henri Rousseau, best known for his large and colorful naïve paintings of fantastical jungles with lush foliage and wild animals, really – well – naïve? Rousseau experienced a lot of ridicule from art critics regarding his childlike interpretations of people and landscapes as well as his fantasy jungles during his lifetime. But the artist seems to have ignored this negative criticism and continued painting. Eh voila -- the work of the French-born artist swelled in popularity shortly after his death in 1910 and today he is touted as one of the forerunners of surrealism.

Henri Rousseau was born into a working class family in 1844. Although he exhibited an interest in music and art, study at an art school was out of the question due to the family’s modest means. After working for a short time in a law office and serving in the French Army, Rousseau settled into a job at the Paris Customs Office at the age of twenty-four to support his widowed mother. This position earned him the nickname of Le Douanier or The Customs Officer. Because of his steady job with the Customs Office, Rousseau was able to take up painting as a hobby in his spare time, painting seriously by the time he reached his forties.

In 1886, while still employed at the Customs Office, Rousseau began to exhibit his work every year at the Salon des Independents in Paris, a venue for avant-garde artists of the time. There was no selection process for the Salon des Independents and Rousseau was able to exhibit for a fee. Rousseau received much ridicule regarding his work but it is said that he took the sarcastic remarks of critics literally, interpreting them as praise. In 1893, at the age of 49, Rousseau retired from his job with a small pension and devoted himself to art, supplementing his income with occasional part-time jobs that included playing his violin in the streets and producing illustrations. Despite his lack of success in the art world, Rousseau managed to capture the attention of noteworthy artists of the time such as Toulouse-Latrec, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. In 1908, Picasso organized a banquet in Rousseau’s honor that was attended by a large number of avant-garde artists of the day. It is thought that the banquet was held with “tongue in cheek” but Rousseau took it quite seriously, regarding himself as a great artist of the times.

It is interesting to note that although Rousseau had no formal training whatsoever, he persevered to develop his own style and did not adopt the style of contemporary artists of the time – impressionism, fauvism and cubism. Although he aspired to duplicate the realistic grandness of such artists as Bouguereau and Gerome, Rousseau’s paintings are plainly executed in what is called a naïve or primitive style, similar to the artwork of a child. The proportions of his human figures are quite unrealistic – the legs short and the heads large – and their poses are unsophisticated and usually head-on. There is little use of perspective and landscapes and buildings appear flat. The concept of distance is unexercised and the portrayal of all objects, however distant, is equally detailed. The foliage in many of his jungle scenes is beautifully intricate but often bears no resemblance to any real plants in nature and is a product of his imagination. Indeed, it is surprising to note that Rousseau is believed never to have traveled beyond his native France. But despite what some might consider lack of talent, the paintings of Henri Rousseau have the ability to enthrall. Their colorfulness and simplicity lend them a freshness that is captivating. They appear to give one the view of the world as seen by a child, thus transforming the ordinary into the fantasy.

It is unfortunate that it was after his death that Henri Rousseau’s work gained the notice of the art world as it never did during his lifetime. Nevertheless, the fact that he is now one of the most celebrated of naïve artists is a testament to the fact that belief in oneself is a vital ingredient to success of an artist. Although Henri Rousseau’s paintings may be naïve, I believe that the artist himself was not.

To see an excellent online gallery of the work of Henri Rousseau, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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