An interesting figure of art history is French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), also known humorously as ‘the customs officer’ since he was a toll and tax collector. His first known work, Landscape with a Windmill, was not produced until he was 35. He started painting seriously in his early forties and retired from his day job to pursue art full time at the age of 49. He was ridiculed by critics during his lifetime, but came to be recognized as a self taught visionary and an immense influence on generations of avant-garde artists to come. 

His work is marked by a naïveté of composition that belies its technical complexity. In 1907, a young Pablo Picasso saw a painting by Rousseau being sold as a canvas meant to be painted over, and was absolutely awestruck. He immediately arranged to visit Rousseau, and threw a banquet in his honor. In attendance were future titans of the Avant Garde art movement of Europe.

tiger in a storm henri rosseau wall art

Rousseau is most well known for his jungle paintings, the first of which was Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), completed in 1891. (Find it on Amazon here)

Though there was hearsay he spent some time in Mexico in the 1860s, he never left France. It is thought that his inspiration came from the botanical gardens of Paris and from prints and books. He was able to create such lush paintings with his powerful imagination. The French at that time were captivated by exoticism and danger, such as the perceived savagery of animals in distant lands. The poor reception to his art therefore seems the result of his style and not the subject matter.

Unable to have his painting accepted by the jury of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Rousseau exhibited it at the Paris Society of Independent Artists, which was unjuried and open to all artists. The painting received mixed reviews. Most critics mocked Rousseau's work as childish, but Félix Vallotton, a young Swiss painter who went on to be a major artist in modern woodcut, said: “His tiger surprising its prey is a 'must-see'; it's the alpha and omega of painting and so disconcerting that, before so much competency and childish naïveté, the most deeply rooted convictions are held up and questioned.”

the sleeping gypsy henri rousseau

The Sleeping Gypsy was painted in 1897. Rousseau described his painting as follows: "A wandering mandolin player lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic." (find it on Amazon here)

Although Rousseau's 'Primitive' painting style was not embraced by critics of his time, his paintings captured the hearts of his contemporaries, among them:  Picasso, Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec. His paintings inspired many generations thereafter and perfectly complement the bold simplicity of many interior design trends today. His paintings are also a reminder to stay true to yourself and your convictions.