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The Frenchman Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau {roo-soh'}, b. May 21, 1844, d. Sept. 2, 1910, having spent most of his life as a customs inspector (or douanier), devoted himself to painting upon his retirement and became the most distinguished primitive artist of the modern era. His gifts included an exceptional sense of design and feeling for color, but it was his exotic and sometimes bizarre vision of a purely imaginary tropical world that made his works unique and unforgettable.

Native Attacked by a Jaguar

"Native Attacked by a Jaguar"
by Henri Rousseau
Kunstmuseum, Basel


Born into a family of modest means, Rousseau served twice in the army in his youth. He was then employed as a minor inspector at a toll station near Paris. Rousseau took up his chosen career in 1885 and retired on a small pension in 1893.

Rousseau's earliest works display the formal characteristics of all primitive art: flat surfaces, minute detail, stiff and frontally posed figures of arbitrary proportions, as in Carnival Evening (1886; Philadelphia Museum of Art). The paintings he sent to the Salon des Indépendants from 1886 to 1910 generally met with derision. Such artists, however, as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas began to recognize a new aesthetic direction in Rousseau's work, pointing away from the naturalism of the impressionists. His paintings from this period include The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) and The Dream (1910; Museum of Modern Art, New York City). In these later works, Rousseau simplified his compositions with larger forms and made a bolder use of color.

Philip Gould, Professor of Art History, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y.
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997.
Bibliography: Ronald Alley, Portrait of a Primitive: The Art of Henri Rousseau (1978); Jean Bouret, Henri Rousseau, trans. by Martin Leake (1961); Natalia Broadskaya, Henri Rousseau (1983); Carolyn Lanchner and William Rubin, Henri Rousseau (1985); D.C. Rich, Henri Rousseau, 2d rev. ed. (1946; repr. 1970); Wilhelm Uhde, Five Primitive Masters, trans. by Ralph Thompson (1949); repr. 1984); Dora Vallier, Henri Rousseau (1964); Alfred Werner, Henri Rousseau (1957).
Images: "Native Attacked by a Jaguar", 1910 (Kunstmuseum, Basel/Photo Explorer).
Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]

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[The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.]

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