known as Le Douanier Rousseau
(1844-1910). French painter, the most celebrated of naïve artists.
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 Bouguereau and
Gérôme, but it was the innocence and charm of his work that won him the admiration of
the avant-garde: in 1908 Picasso gave a banquet, half serious half burlesque, in his
honor. Rousseau is now best known for his jungle scenes, the first of which is
(Tropical Storm with a Tiger) (National Gallery, London, 1891) and the last
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
(Philadelphia Museum of Art, 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.