It’s rare to find a life as unrelentingly tragic as that of Henri Rousseau. Poverty, debt, and humiliation were his daily companions. His single thread of hope was his painting.
Henri Rousseau was the son of a carpenter, born into a family proud of their military heritage, but victim to constant fraud and financial mistake. When he was 8 years old, the Rousseau family went bankrupt and lost their home. Young Henri was left in the care of a boarding school, where he learned to love drawing, but had no money for lessons in art.
Henri’s youth ended when he was 18. He and two friends stole stamps and a small amount of money from their employer, a lawyer in Angers. To escape penalty Henri joined the 51st Infantry, though he was never deployed, and escaped Napoleon III’s violent and disastrous campaign in Mexico. In 1868, Henri’s father died, and he was released from military duty to care for his grieving mother.
Now a young man, Henri moved to Paris and worked as a bailiff’s assistant. It was a brutal job, requiring him to evict poor Parisians from their homes, and relive his own childhood trauma again and again. Relief appeared in the form of Clemence, the 18 year old daughter of his landlady. They were married in 1869, Henri got a new job with the customs office, and began painting on Sundays. They were happy, for a time.
But for the next twelve years, death hovered over the Rousseau home. During the siege of Paris, in the Franco-Prussian War, Henri and Clemence had their first child Henri-Anatole-Clement Rousseau, but the child died during the starving siege conditions. Their next two children, Antonine-Louise Rousseau and Julia-Clemence Rousseau died while only months old. When they had their fouth and fifth children, Julia and Henri-Anatole, they sent them away with their nurse to Malakoff, in the hopes the country air would sustain them. In 1882, Henri and Clemence had one more child, who died shortly after birth.
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Reed Enger, "Henri Rousseau, Painting dreams with a child's brush," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 18, 2015; last modified September 19, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/henri-rousseau/.
All these celebrated men were in agreement in saying I should persevere and that notwithstanding my being forty years old it was still not too late.
"...don't lose your temper and spoil our fun. After all, it isn't every day we come to Paris and good heavens, since we've seen all these lovely things at the Fair!"
His appearance is notable because of his bushy beard ... believing as he does that complete freedom to produce must be granted to the innovator whose thought is elevated toward the beautiful and the good.
"Money, lovely Money, don't ever leave me you are worth more than all the women in the world."