The Imaginary Landscapes of Henri Rousseau

The Imaginary Landscapes of Henri Rousseau

Imagine Paris, 1871.

Your day job—to search each wagon that arrives at the city gates for certain contraband.

“Bonjour,” you say, “Do you carry wine, bread, or cheese for consumption in the city?”

That, of course, rates as the most idiotic question anyone could pose to a Frenchman.

“Mais, no!” the driver cries.

You pull a baguette from under his seat. The driver gives you a dirty look and pays tax on the hapless loaf. The next wagon trundles forward.

You sigh. You’re not a very popular guy. And that’s what poor Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) experienced, day in and day out, for years.

But all that repetition allowed one thing to run wild—his imagination.

Rousseau drifted through a few years of law school, then joined the army. But he took responsibility for his mother’s care when his father died.

They moved to Paris in 1868 and Rousseau (like many late bloomers, including PD James and Richard Adams) joined the civil service and eventually became a high-ranking customs official. In 1869, he married Clemence Boitard, his landlord’s daughter. It must have been a grand passion, for he wrote a waltz named after her. They had four children, but three died very young.

The Imaginary Landscapes of Late Bloomer Henri Rousseau at LaterBloomer.com
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), 1891

Around 1884, at age 40, Rousseau first picked up a brush.

He painted landscapes of the mind, since he never visited the locales he depicted. His knowledge of jungles and animals entirely came from books, the zoo, a museum of taxidermy.

I imagine him imagining scenes like the one at right when he encountered a particularly belligerent wagon driver.

Rousseau submitted his work to the official Salon, the high arbiter of art, but they rejected him for lack of skill and perspective.

He kept painting.

A few years later, he applied to the newly-formed Salon des Independents, which welcomed all artists, irrelevant of skill and public opinion.

But even among these “independents,” his complete disregard for artistic convention brought ridicule.

In 1888, Clemence died, leaving Rousseau heartbroken. Perhaps he felt that life was just too short, for he took early retirement four years later.

At age 49, Rousseau started painting full-time.

He didn’t achieve instant success. Most exhibitions he applied for rejected him. The mayor of his hometown destroyed a portrait commissioned from Rousseau, he hated it so much.

At one point, Rousseau took part-time work selling Le Petit Journal and offered drawing lessons.

And for the rest of his life, he was called “Le Douanier” or “the customs man.” But Rousseau never gave up. He continued to paint prolifically.

He died in 1910 at age 66, an icon to the next generation of rebellious artists. A year after Rousseau’s death, the official Salon held the first exhibition devoted exclusively to his work.

Adrian Searle of The Guardian concludes,

Rousseau’s appeal is to the child in all of us. He gives us back a sense of wonder. But like all the best children’s stories, his works are full of darkness, violence and mystery. This is why he’s worth returning to, and why he is so popular. Rousseau himself remains the biggest mystery of all.

More About Henri Rousseau

Journal Question:
Has boredom or repetition ever moved you to a creative breakthrough? Feel free to start below!

30 Responses

  1. August McLaughlin
    | Reply

    Yet another inspiring story, Debra. How wonderful that he chose art over retirement. I can only imagine how healing that was for him—and beneficial for all of us. That tiger work is gorgeous! 🙂 Thanks for this post. Hope you’re having a great weekend!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, August. So, so true and what I hope for us all — art over retirement!

    • Monica
      |

      Yeah. That really is an inspiring one.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Glad you enjoyed it, Monica!

  2. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Love this, Debra! It’s amazing what you have found out about these folks. I really enjoy the way you spin it into a story, too. Not only am I inspired, I am entertained. Thank you!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Kathy. I’ve been keeping a list for about two years, and now people just seem to fall into my lap 🙂 Every life holds a fascinating story.

  3. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra: How perfectly divine … this story reminds me of a print a friend hung in her living room. I had no education in art, but there was something so intriguing about that painting … an intrigue you reminded me of today.

    So often, it is the man who goes against the trend, follows his own path, who becomes the true beacon for others … thanks 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Hi Florence, I’ve not taken any art classes either, but I remember being fascinated by a greeting card with one of Rousseau’s images on it. It led me to buy a book of his paintings and used the jungle theme to decorate my room when I was 16. My mother hated it, but even then I must have recognized a kindred spirit who used imagination to escape! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Pat O'Dea Rosen
    | Reply

    I wish I could change history so the Salon held its first exhibition devoted to Rousseau’s work the year BEFORE his death. Great post, Debra! Rousseau’s perseverance is inspiring.

    • Debra Eve
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      That would have been wonderful for Rousseau, Pat. Despite his popular acclaim, he never received it from the official governing body. He died well-known but not famous, and certainly not well-off. But still, he followed this dream!

  5. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,
    Imagination is a great gift…even greater when used wildly, thanks for this terrific story.
    be good to yourself
    David

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, David. Rousseau must have had a great passion for his wild gift, to continue as he did. A role model for us all!

  6. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    Just goes to show that the critics don’t always know what’s good! Most interesting is that his imagination was his only reference material. Thanks for sharing another inspiring story!

    • Debra Eve
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      Your welcome, Jennette. That’s such a good point — critics can miss the mark, quite often! Thanks.

  7. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    I find it fascinating how artists continue to push forward even under the negativity of rejection. It’s like an inborn drive, a passion that burns from deep inside, fueling their art and to keep on going. What an amazing story Debra. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Karen. I have a terrible time with rejection, even now. I don’t know how some artists keep doing it, but I certainly want to emulate them!

  8. Cristina Andersson
    | Reply

    Hi Debra, just stopped by to tell you that we are mentioning your blog in our new book “BohoBusiness”, where we also write about late bloomers.

    Thank you for your fantastic articles.
    Love,
    Cristina

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I’m so honored, Cristina! I’ve got both your blogs and really enjoy them.

  9. Lee J Tyler
    | Reply

    I didn’t know Rousseau was a late bloomer. I pictured him, even visiting his paintings outside of Paris, painting from a young boy on. Of course, he doesn’t get a showing until he couldn’t take them up on their offer but how wonderful to know this. You write so, so beautifully and though I’ve been a subscriber, this in particular is giving me an extra dose of happiness, not necessarily for Rousseau, Mais non!, mais pour moi! For me and my work. I thank you for both the story and the extra jolt in the arm.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, I’m so touched, Lee! I love artistic late bloomers, because by that point, they’ve eschewed conventioned truly listed to the muse. His belief in his vision keeps me going too.

  10. Pio Peter Dsouza
    | Reply

    Thanks for the story…and the inspiration therewith. 🙂

  11. Pio Peter Dsouza
    | Reply

    Thanks for the story…and the inspiration therewith. 🙂

  12. Sandra Pawula
    | Reply

    I can’t help but feel a bit sad that Rousseau was never fully recognized in his lifetime. But, still there must have been the joy of following his passion and producing these gorgeous scenes!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      So true, Sandra. But I always go back to Erma Bombeck’s famous quote: “Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.” I think just having the courage to pursue our art equates to success in this culture!

  13. Florence Fois
    | Reply

    Ah Debra, such a sad tale … yet it is also beautiful. That Rousseau captured the child within himself, and never wavered, gave the world lovely images. As always, you remind us that time and space are not as important as finding our passion.
    Thanks so much for your dedication to those who come to who they are “later” in life. And how well you tell us of each one 🙂

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I love that he rebelled to the end though, and become the mentor to a whole new generation of rebels. Thanks, Florence!

  14. Peggy Nolan
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,

    As a late bloomer myself, I’m already in love with your site and your posts. I loved this piece on Rousseau. I wrote my first poem when I was 40. And now, 10 years later, I’m about to take the next step and self-publish my first book of poetry – poems which have been languishing in the digital void on my laptop. It’s time.

    Thank YOU for the inspiration!
    Peggy

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      That’s so exciting about your poetry, Peggy! Congrats. I self-published and I love everything about doing it, from the writing to creating the cover to the tech aspects. Nothing creative should sit in the void 🙂

  15. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    Yes, it’s funny how working a repetitive job tends to inspire a creative rebellion — I suspect that’s occurring in me on a smaller scale when I get on a long flight. Although air travel is one of my least favorite activities, for whatever reason, I always end up getting inspired along the way. I guess it’s something about being trapped in a small space with no available distractions.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I love writing on a plane, Chris, and have become enamored with Amtrek’s Writer-in-Residence fellowship. I think you’ve hit it — small space, no distractions. The shower is also a notorious place for inspiration 🙂

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