known as Le Douanier Rousseau
French painter, the most celebrated of
His nickname refers to the job he held with the Paris Customs Office
(1871-93), although he never actually rose to the rank of Douanier
(Customs Officer). Before this he had served in the army, and he later
claimed to have seen service in Mexico, but this story seems to be
a product of his imagination. He took up painting as a hobby and
accepted early retirement in 1893 so he could devote himself to art.
His character was extraordinarily ingenuous and he suffered much ridicule
(although he sometimes interpreted sarcastic remarks literally and took
them as praise) as well as enduring great poverty. However, his faith
in his own abilities never wavered.
He tried to paint in the academic manner of such traditionalist artists as
but it was the innocence and charm of his work that won him the
admiration of the avant-garde: in 1908
gave a banquet, half serious half burlesque, in his honor.
Rousseau is now best known for his jungle scenes, the first of which is
Surprised! (Tropical Storm with a Tiger)
(National Gallery, London, 1891) and the last The Dream
(MOMA, New York, 1910). These two paintings are works of great
imaginative power, in which he showed his extraordinary ability to retain
the utter freshness of his vision even when working on a large scale and
with loving attention to detail. He claimed such scenes were inspired by
his experiences in Mexico, but in fact his sources were illustrated books
and visits to the zoo and botanical gardens in Paris.
His other work ranges from the jaunty humor of
The Football Players
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1908)
to the mesmeric, eerie beauty of
The Sleeping Gypsy (MOMA, 1897).
Rousseau was buried in a pauper's grave, but his greatness began to be
widely acknowledged soon after his death.