The Complex Simplicity of Henri Rousseau’s Art

By Jessica Cander

A few basic, descriptive words can define a person’s reputation in a mere brush stroke. Naïve, childlike, primitive – words like these have lived on long after the renowned French painter Henri Rousseau has left this world. Yet time and time again they are the tidbits of vocabulary, or the glaring labels that people give to Rousseau.

One has only to stare intently at his works with their bright shades, seemingly simple forms and fantasy like scenarios to see that they do have an unmistakable childlike aura about them, yet surely they show us more upon second glance.

The man Picasso would one day go on to befriend after seeing one of Rousseau’s canvases being sold for reuse, was born in Laval France on the 21st of May, 1844. Never a rich man by any means, Rousseau entered the army as a youngster and later became a toll clerk in Paris. At the somewhat early age of forty nine Henri Rousseau retired from his life in the civil service so he could devote night and day to his dearest passion, painting.

Rousseau belonged to an elite class of artists, though many of his peers and critics were not so quick to see Henri’s career as such. Rousseau was a self-taught artist through and through. Though he obtained the needed permit to sketch inside of the national French museums in 1884, Henri never so much as took a formal art class or apprenticed under any master of the day. Like so many with great loves, he simply had a burning passion for painting embedded in his soul.

The art world was alive in new and fantastic ways in the late nineteenth century; thousands of would-be artists clambered either in the shadows or in the limelight for recognition. This was the era that would produce such legends as Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to name but three. So in this time of artistic explosion Rousseau worked – whether intentionally or not – in a style and manner that was delightfully unique and captivating. Though often grouped under the heading post-impressionism, Henri’s work somehow stands out from the crowd.

It is innovative and subtly provocative, surrealist and dreamy. He favoured animals, real life subject matter (including paintings of many of the people closest to him) and vivid, well-saturated colours. His passion for painting jungle scenery and wild beasts is thought to come from time spent in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, a lush botanical garden that housed a well stocked zoo of exotic creatures.

In his work we do see a sense of childlike innocence, but it may be because that is what Rousseau was attempting to do, rather than a by-product of his creativity. In an epoch of so many social, political, religious and technological – not to mention artistic – changes, living a lower class life (Henri and his wife Clémence had nine children to support on his meagre salary), and without formal training to sway him towards other more traditional or “in vogue” forms of art, perhaps Henri was trying to carve out the sort of life he secretly wished for through his work.

And so, like a child who daydreams incessantly in the face of reality, Henri Rousseau painted the world in a way that showed both its colourful simplicity and its mysterious secrets; a place of ambiguity, a fascinating jungle of fantasy amidst the harsh backdrop of late nineteenth century Paris.

Born is Vancouver, BC Jessica Cander is a professional freelance writer who currently calls the Southern tip of Ireland home. She intensely enjoys writing on all aspects of culture and the arts, and is a fan of Henri Rousseau’s painting.

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