(b. 1844, Laval, d. 1910, Paris)


French painter, called Le Douanier [the customs officer] the epithet his friends later used although he was a tax collector for more than 20 years before he retired to paint (1893). He was an ambitious, self-taught naive painter. Rousseau admired past academic artists like Bouguereau, and took direct inspiration from the Jardin des Plantes, but he was adopted by the leaders of modern art, with Apollinaire often acting as publicist. Rousseau measured Apollinaire for his portrait alongside Marie Laurencin in La Muse inspirant le poete: the resemblance is gauche yet unmistakable.

Although he claimed to have lived in Mexico in his youth, he later admitted that the claim was false. The only tropical vegetation Rousseau ever saw was in Parisian greenhouses, and his remarkable landscapes had no counterpart in nature. His painted jungles are an organized profusion of carefully defined yet fantastic plants, half-concealing various wild animals with startlingly staring eyes. These scenes are rendered in a vivid, almost hypnotic folk style. The finest ones include The Snake Charmer (1907; Musée du Louvre, Paris) and The Dream (1910; Museum of Modern Art, New York). With the same approach Rousseau employed in painting the familiar (e.g., Village Street Scene, 1909; Philadelphia Museum of Art), he painted the haunting and dreamlike Sleeping Gypsy (1897; Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Rousseau exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants from 1886, but did not become well known until the early years of the 20th century when he was "taken up" by Picasso, Apollinaire, and other members of the Parisian avant garde. In his honour Picasso organised a banquet in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1908, attended by artists and writers.

He died a pauper.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.