Welcome to the Jungle… The Mindscapes of Henri Rousseau

51kiIMlGlMLOn the 2nd of September 1910, French Naïve painter Henri Rousseau died in Paris aged 66. A puzzling cult figure during his lifetime, Rousseau was very much a self-taught artist with a unique style, famous most of all for his visionary jungle scenes. The inspiration for his art seems to have come from various sources. “During his 4-year term of military service he met soldiers who had survived the French expedition to Mexico (1862–65) in support of Emperor Maximilian, and he listened with fascination to their recollections. Their descriptions of the subtropical country were doubtless the first inspiration for the exotic landscapes that later became one of his major themes. The vividness of Rousseau’s portrayals of jungle scenes led to the popular conception, which Rousseau never refuted, that he traveled to Mexico. In fact, he never left France.” (Britannica). The truth of the matter was that Rousseau had only joined the army after cheating his solicitor employer out of a small sum of money and some stamps, for which he even ended up spending a month in jail!

In 1871, he became a tax collector in the Paris toll office, hence the name by which he was known in later years, le Douanier (“the Customs Officer”), notwithstanding the fact that the toll office had no actual customs functions. For many years derided as a wacky amateur, Rousseau made his debut at the Salon des Indépendants with his work Carnival Evening (1886), a surprising start to his future career as an artist. Typical of “naive art”, everything in this work was “literally and deliberately drawn—every branch of the trees is traced, the clouds have a curious solidity, and greater attention is paid to the details of costume than to the figures themselves. The design of Rousseau’s painting, however, is effectively poetic, and he achieved a striking quality of atmosphere and mood through his accurate and sensit71SDdbVXGuLive observation of the colours of the evening.” (Britannica)

As his wife and children, par one daughter, died, Rousseau was left behind with only his work to get him through personal heartache and hardship… He was further influenced in his style by the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1889 – the reconstructions of Senegalese, Tonkinese, and Tahitian landscapes fuelling the exoticism he was so drawn to. Having never seen an actual jungle, the knowledge of tropical vegetation and animals was mainly derived from the zoo, the Paris botanical gardens and the taxidermic museum that opened in the French capital in 1889, as well as academic sculptures and paintings from the Louvre, postcards and a book of wildlife pictures.

After exhibiting with the Fauves in 1905, Rousseau gained the admiration of the artistic avant-garde and personalities such as Andre Breton andPicasso. His dreamscapes, and especially the moody atmosphere they created varied from comical to sinister; they unsettled the viewer with their rich combination of exoticism and romanticism. “Rousseau could get away with all kinds of awkwardnesses and academic defects, and with much silliness. His clouds are mad, his botany and zoology are barmy, his sunsets are alarming. The spots on a leopard, a bird’s plumage, a tiger’s stripes he could paint very well, but when it came to footballers’ striped jerseys, or human hands or feet or faces, something hapless and laughable occurs. (…)”The lion, being hungry, hurls itself on the antelope, devours it; the panther anxiously awaits the moment that she too will have her turn,” Rousseau wrote of his 1905 painting, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope. “Carnivorous birds have each torn off a piece of flesh from the underside of the poor animal as it lets fall a tear! The sun sets.” (Adrian Searle, ‘Stumble in the Jungle’, The Guardian, Tuesday 1 November 2005). 

51BTQY16BSLRousseau’s break came when the writer Alfred Jarry wrote a brilliant review of his work The War (1894), exhibited at the 1894 Salon des Indépendants, which demonstrated an ingenious use of allegory, which set him apart from mere landscape painting. This work marked the beginning of the recognition of Rousseau as a serious painter. In history, Henri Rousseau will never be remembered for exceptional talent or skill, yet his wild imagination gave birth to wonderfully individual images which can instantly be associated with his name – a name which he signed with large, awkward letters at the corner of each painting. The way in which Rousseau’s mind worked is still unfathomable and the viewer cannot help wanting to return to explore his works in search of visual clues which would decipher his secret. Discover Rousseau for yourself here