How Henri Rousseau Became the Untrained Master of Surreal Jungle-Inspired Paintings

Henri Rousseau

“The Dream” (1910) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Many famous artists from history were unappreciated in their time, but French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau was particularly mocked by critics for his “childlike” compositions. The self-taught naïve artist became best-known for his lush jungle scenes—despite having never left France or seen a jungle first-hand. Instead, his now-iconic paintings were inspired by children's books as well as the zoo and botanical gardens of Paris.


Who Was Henri Rousseau?

Born on May 21, 1844, Rousseau grew up in Laval, a small town in northwestern France. He and his family moved to Angers in 1861, and Rousseau found a job as a clerk for the local bailiff. This role gained him the lifelong nickname Le Douanier, a humorous term for his occupation as a toll and tax collector. Although he didn’t pursue painting full-time until his 40s, it is quite possible that he practiced drawing during slow days at the office because he produced his first artworks around this time.


Myself, Rousseau's Self Portrait

Henri Rousseau

“Myself” (1890) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

In his self-portrait, titled Myself (1890), Rousseau depicts himself wearing a black suit and traditional artist's beret. He stands in front of a landscape featuring the Eiffel Tower and a ship decorated with world flags. Myself remained an ever-changing work of art; Rousseau frequently updated the painting throughout the years with additional autobiographical details. In 1901, he added a ribbon on his lapel that signified the time he became a drawing teacher at the Association Philotechnique. He also included the names of his two wives, Clemence and Josephine.

The painting's hybrid genre—somewhere between a portrait and a landscape—was disliked by critics, but Rousseau proudly claimed it as his own. He once said, “I am the inventor of the portrait landscape, as the press has pointed out.”


What is Naïve Art?

Jungle Painting by Henri Rousseau

“Exotic Landscape” (1908) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Also known as primitivism, pseudo-naïve art, or faux naïve art, naïve art is defined as visual art created by a person who lacks formal education in art. Naïve paintings typically feature childlike simplicity, awkward perspective, and flat colors.

Rousseau was a key figure in the movement and developed his own style that many thought reflected his lack of academic training. Featuring incorrect proportions, one-sided perspective, and unnatural colors, Rousseau’s body of work was criticized by many. For other people, however, it evoked a sense of mystery and eccentricity. In fact, some art historians say that the term naïve art originated in 1885 when artist Paul Signac set about organizing exhibitions of Rousseau’s work in a number of esteemed galleries.


Defying Criticism

Self Portrait of Henri Rousseau

“Self-portrait of the Artist with a Lamp” (1903) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

In 1886, Rousseau showed four of his paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, the primary exhibition venue for the Post-Impressionists. His work was ridiculed though, with one critic remarking, “Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet, with a blindfold over his eyes.” However, that didn’t discourage Rousseau from pursuing painting, and he continued to show his work at Salon des Indépendants almost every year until his death in 1910.

Rousseau began taking his art seriously in his 40s, and by age 49 he retired from his job as a tax collector to work on his paintings full-time. The artist claimed he needed “no other teacher than nature,” and pasted all his negative reviews into his personal scrapbook.


Rousseau's Most Famous Jungle Works

Henri Rousseau

“Tropical Forest with Monkeys” (1910) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Rousseau’s jungle paintings transport viewers into another world—one that he pieced together from his own imagination and his explorations of Paris. The artist once famously said, “When I step into the hothouses and see the plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am in a dream.”


Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm

Henri Rousseau

“Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm” (1891) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Painted in 1891, Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm is Rousseau’s first jungle painting. It was exhibited at Salon des Indépendants the same year and features a wide-eyed, tooth-bearing tiger emerging from the grass. The backdrop features lightning flashes, rain, wind-swept tree branches, and a dark sky to indicate the storm. This energetic scene was ridiculed by critics, but today it is celebrated as one of his best works.


The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope

Henri Rousseau

“The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope” (1905) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Another one of Rousseau’s famous works is The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, painted in 1905. Set among lush jungle trees, a hungry lion is depicted chowing down on the neck of the helpless antelope while a panther and birds of prey stand by. Rousseau based the poses of the two animals on a diorama made for Jardin des Plantes, a zoological garden that he visited often.

Rousseau wrote the following caption to accompany the painting: “The hungry lion, throwing himself upon the antelope, devours him. The panther stands by awaiting the moment when he, too, can claim his share. Birds of prey have ripped out pieces of flesh from the poor animal that sheds a tear!”

Displayed alongside works by Henri Matisse and André Derainat at the Salon d'Automne in 1905, some critics compared The Hungry Lion to cave paintings. However, it was positioned among the leading artists of the avant-garde (whose expressive use of vibrant colors became known as Fauvism) and was backed by his admirers, Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire.


The Legacy of Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau

“The Snake Charmer” (1907) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Despite his popularity among his fellow artists, Rousseau couldn't seem to win the respect of the art world and lived in poverty until he died from an infected leg wound in 1910.

Rousseau's friends and fellow artists came together to promote his legacy after his death. Artist Max Weber introduced Rousseau's work to American audiences with a New York exhibition in 1910 followed by a memorial exhibition organized by Robert Delaunay at the Salon des Indépendants.

Eventually, Rousseau’s painting style resonated with “primitivism” that was embraced by early-20th-century modern artists such as Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky; they looked to art forms such as African tribal masks for inspiration. Rousseau was also hailed as a “proto-Surrealist” by André Breton because of the dream-like quality his paintings held.

Rousseau’s body of work also influenced many modern artists in other fields. American poet Sylvia Plath referenced his paintings The Dream and The Snake Charmer in her poetry. Additionally, the song The Jungle Line, by Joni Mitchell, is based on a Rousseau painting.

Related Articles:

9 Famous French Painters You Should Know

Exploring the Vision and Diverse Styles of Post-Impressionism Pioneers

13 Revolutionary Art Movements That Have Shaped Our Visual History

Emma Taggart

Emma Taggart is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. Originally from Northern Ireland, she is an artist now based in Berlin. After graduating with a BA in Fashion and Textile Design in 2013, Emma decided to combine her love of art with her passion for writing. Emma has contributed to various art and culture publications, with an aim to promote and share the work of inspiring modern creatives. While she writes every day, she’s also devoted to her own creative outlet—Emma hand-draws illustrations and is currently learning 2D animation.
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