Obelisk Art History
The Artists

Henri Rousseau
Painting dreams with a child's brush

Henri Rousseau, The Artists
Portrait of Henri Rousseau

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.

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 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/.

Henri Rousseau was a French Outsider Artist and Self-Taught Artist born on May 12, 1844. Rousseau contributed to the Post-Impressionist movement and died on September 2, 1910.

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.

On Rejection and Hard Work 1884

A Carnival Evening, Henri Rousseau

A Carnival Evening 1885

"...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!"

A Visit to the 1889 Fair — a play by Henri Rousseau 1889

Myself: Portrait – Landscape, Henri Rousseau

Myself: Portrait – Landscape 1890

Portrait of Pierre Loti, Henri Rousseau

Portrait of Pierre Loti 1891

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.

Henri Rousseau — Autobiography 1895

Portrait of a Woman, Henri Rousseau

Portrait of a Woman 1895

Portrait of a Woman, Henri Rousseau

Portrait of a Woman 1895

Portrait of Leon-Paul Fargue, Henri Rousseau

Portrait of Leon-Paul Fargue 1896

Boy on the Rocks, Henri Rousseau

Boy on the Rocks 1895 – 1897

The Sleeping Gypsy, Henri Rousseau

The Sleeping Gypsy 1897

"Money, lovely Money, don't ever leave me you are worth more than all the women in the world."

A Russian Orphan's Revenge — a play by Henri Rousseau 1899

Self-portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, Henri Rousseau

Self-portrait of the Artist with a Lamp 1903

Portrait of a Man, Henri Rousseau

Portrait of a Man 1905

The Hungry Lion throws itself on the Antelope, Henri Rousseau

The Hungry Lion throws itself on the Antelope 1905

Representatives of Foreign Powers, Henri Rousseau

Representatives of Foreign Powers 1907

The Snake Charmer, Henri Rousseau

The Snake Charmer 1907

The Dream, Henri Rousseau

The Dream 1910

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