French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born May 21, 1844 He was also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer), a humorous description of his occupation as a toll collector.Ridiculed during his lifetime, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality. Henri Rousseau was born in Laval, France in 1844 into the family of a plumber; he was forced to work there as a small boy.He attended Laval High School as a day student and then as a boarder, after his father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. He was mediocre in some subjects at the high school but won prizes for drawing and music. He worked for a lawyer and studied law, but “attempted a small perjury and sought refuge in the army,”serving for four years, starting in 1863. With his father’s death, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868 to support his widowed mother as a government employee. In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord’s 15 year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). In 1871, he was appointed as a collector of the octroi of Paris, collecting taxes on goods entering Paris. His wife died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898. He started painting seriously in his early forties, and by age 49 he retired from his job to work on his art full-time.
His best known paintings depict jungle scenes, even though he never left France or saw a jungle. Stories spread by admirers that his army service included the French expeditionary force to Mexico are unfounded. His inspiration came from illustrated books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of taxidermied wild animals. He had also met soldiers during his term of service who had survived the French expedition to Mexico, and he listened to their stories of the subtropical country they had encountered. To the critic Arsène Alexandre, he described his frequent visits to the Jardin des Plantes: “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.”Along with his exotic scenes there was a concurrent output of smaller topographical images of the city and its suburbs. He claimed to have invented a new genre of portrait landscape, which he achieved by starting a painting with a view such as a favourite part of the city, and then depicting a person in the foreground.
In 1905, Rousseau’s large jungle scene The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (above) was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants near works by younger leading avant-garde artists such as Henri Matisse in what is now seen as the first showing of The Fauves. Rousseau’s painting may even have influenced the naming of the Fauves. When Pablo Picasso happened upon a painting by Rousseau being sold on the street as a canvas to be painted over, the younger artist instantly recognised Rousseau’s genius and went to meet him. In 1908 Picasso held a half serious, half burlesque banquet in his studio in Le Bateau-Lavoir in Rousseau’s honour. Following Rousseau’s retirement in 1893, he supplemented his small pension with part-time jobs and work such as playing a violin in the streets. He also worked briefly at Le petit journal, where he produced a number of its covers.The Dream (1910), Rousseau exhibited his final painting, The Dream, at the 1910 Salon des Independantsa few months before his death on 2 September 1910 in the Hospital Necker in Paris.At his funeral, seven friends stood at his grave in the Cimetière de Bagneux: the painters Paul Signac and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, the artist couple Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk, the sculptor Brâncuşi, Rousseau’s landlord Armand Queval and Guillaume Apollinaire.