About Henri Rousseau's Paintings

by David Peta

Born in France in 1844, Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was a customs officer who began oil painting upon his retirement at age 49. His work, which spanned 19 years between 1891 and 1910, is described as post-Impressionist and is characterized by its bold color, rich detail and irregular scale. Because he was self-taught, Rousseau was often derided as a naive or primitive artist by contemporaries -- it was only after his death that his paintings were given the recognition they deserve.

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Jungle Paintings

Rousseau's jungle paintings, with their dream-like visions, are regarded as his most enchanting works of art, which is particularly interesting because he never left Paris. His visions of jungles were derived from the zoos and botanical gardens he visited, illustrated books, postcards and a fertile imagination. His most memorable jungle paintings include a tiger attacking a scout (1904); a snake charmer surrounded by serpents (1907); and a fight between a tiger and a buffalo (1909).

Parisian Landscapes

Rousseau's paintings of Parisian landscapes are in sharp contrast to his exotic, action-filled jungle scenes. In painting suburban Paris, he emphasized the tranquil nature of life, from walking through parkland to lazing on a boat and fishing in slow-moving rivers. Many of these works were sold for a pittance, but nonetheless reflected his ability to diversify. Despite the placid nature of these paintings, however, they have been described as eerie because of the disproportionate scale Rousseau used, giving them a haunted look.

Portraits

Rousseau painted his own brand of portraits, but they were not to everybody's taste. The most disturbing aspect involved those in which the sitters were children. One portrait in particular stands out. Entitled ''To Celebrate the Baby'' (1903), it depicts a young boy or girl facing the painter and holding an absurdly oversize puppet. Art critics have struggled to detect any symbolism in this (or indeeed in Rousseau's other portraits), but there is no mistaking the menacing scowl on the child's face; it is devoid of childhood innocence, which makes it chilling but no less intriguing.

Allegorical Paintings

A fervent patriot, Rousseau's vision of France was of a peace-loving nation intent on bringing civilization and liberty to the rest of the world. His political paintings, the most prolific of which was ''The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace'' (1907), are a nod to the Third Republic, even though it was regarded by many as completely ineffective. The above painting depicted an imaginary state gathering with Marianne, representing the French Republic, looming large over other heads of state.

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