Who Was Le Douanier Rousseau?
Le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910) was a self-taught French painter who had an important influence on art at the end of the 19th Century and became the acknowledged master of a style known as naive or primitive painting. His real name was Henri Julien Félix Rousseau.
He was patronizingly called “Le Douanier” (French for customs-house officer) because he worked for some years in a Paris toll-house, and the nickname stuck because it helped to distinguish him from Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), leader of a group of landscape painters. After a spell in the army, the younger Rousseau spent about a quarter of a century as a minor civil servant.
About 1880 he began to paint in his spare time. In 1886 he exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, but the naivety of his work aroused derision and he did not decide to paint professionally until his retirement in 1893. Gradually the strength and originality of his pictures gained recognition. He was introduced to Paul Signac, a neo-Impressionist painter, and through him met the artists Gauguin, Pissarro and Seurat.
Among the painters who most admired his style were Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. The young Picasso, who used to visit him in his rooms, gave a banquet in his honor in 1908. Le Douanier continued to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants until the year of his death. He longed to be able to paint in the academic way, but brought a splendid quality of directness, simplicity and sensibility to his work. Among the most remarkable of his paintings are 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 illustrations in children’s books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of taxidermy 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 specific view, such as a favorite part of the city, and then depicting a person in the foreground.
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. Though mediocre in some of his high school subjects, Rousseau won prizes for drawing and music. After high school, he worked for a lawyer and studied law, but “attempted a small perjury and sought refuge in the army.”
He served 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; by age 49, he retired from his job to work on his art full-time.
Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”, although he admitted he had received “some advice” from two established Academic painters, Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Essentially, he was self-taught and is considered to be a naïve or primitive painter.