It’s rare to find a life as brutal and tragic as that of Henri Rousseau. Poverty, debt, and humiliation were his daily companions, and his single thread of hope through 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.
A Life of Poverty and Loss
Henri’s youth ended when he was 18 — he and two friends stole stamps and a small amount of money their employer — a lawyer in Angers. To escape penalty he joined the 51st Infantry. Henri was never deployed, escaping 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 brutal job, requiring him to evict poor Parisians from their homes, and relive his own childhood trauma again and again. Relief appear 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 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 have one more child, who died shortly after birth.