Rousseau in front of his painting Forest Landscape with Setting Sun

Rousseau in front of his painting Forest Landscape with Setting Sun 1910
© Collection Roger-Viollet

Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Laval, a market town in northwest France, to petit-bourgeois parents. After serving in the army from 1863 to 1870, he secured a job as a clerk in the Octroi, the service that imposed duty on goods entering and leaving Paris. He remained a low-ranking civil servant until his early retirement from the Octroi in 1893.

Rousseau’s life was marred by poverty, the death of both his wives, and the loss of six of his seven children in infancy. He didn’t take up painting in earnest until his early forties, but his belief in his own creative abilities was unshakeable. His paintings covered a broad range of subjects, from still life, individual or group portraits and historical scenes to urban and tropical landscapes. He also wrote poetry and dramas, composed waltzes and played the violin at the legendary soirées at his modest home. Rousseau died in September 1910.

During his lifetime, Rousseau’s work was ridiculed by the public and rejected by traditionalists. He aspired to join the staunchly conservative artists of the French Academy but developed an idiosyncratic style at odds with their conventional approach to perspective and realism.Instead his style foreshadowed some of the central innovations of twentieth-century Modernism, and it was ultimately the younger generation of avant-garde writers and artists, including Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso, who came to champion his work.