The History and Works of Henri Rousseau


Henri Rousseau is an influential painter whose style and technique had a significant effect on the development of avant-garde. His personal life and art were very unusual, making the artist stand out among other painters of the time. The naivety and primitivism, typical to his style, saw a mixed reaction from critics, and the author was not recognized during his life. At the same time, Rousseau was praised by the following generations of avant-garde artists for his innovative approach and unique technique. Studying the life of Henri Rousseau and his most influential paintings helps understand the sources of his inspiration and the evolution of his style.

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Rousseau never studied art academically and started his career as a painter in his forties, developing his style independently. The author loved spending time in botanical gardens, where he could see various kinds of exotic plans. The artist claimed that nature was his only teacher, allowing him to dream and play with his imagination (Shattuck, 1968). Illustrations from children’s books also were a source of inspiration for the author, contributing to the development of his unique style (Adams, 2018).

Meeting French soldiers who served in Mexico also made an impact on Rousseau, as he was fascinated by their stories about strange foreign lands (Adams, 2018). Thus, despite the fact that Henri Rousseau never traveled overseas, he was inspired by jangles and wild animals, often turning to use them as central elements in his paintings.

Henri Rousseau’s paintings evoke a strong emotional response in people and can make a drastically different effect depending on the audience. The nativity and seemingly primitive style of the author made many people think that his works were painted by a child. This fact has always been the main target for criticism and debate regarding the artist. During his life, various critics ridiculed the techniques of the author, while others praised its unique ingenuousness.

At the same time, many viewers pointed out that, despite the appearance, the works of Henri Rousseau show high levels of sophistication (Shattuck, 1968). Thus, the author’s style aroused controversy among critics and provoked a major public discussion regarding his art.

The self-portrait that was painted by Henri Rousseau in 1890 reflects the author’s vision of himself and his work. The painting shows Rousseau standing with Paris in the background. The figure of the painter is deliberately depicted disproportionally huge compared to other elements of the picture. The author employed this device to represent how he feels about his place in the world and his work. The way Rousseau painted himself shows that his technique did not fit in any genre of contemporary art. In addition to that, the facial expression on the self-portrait illustrates the painter’s attitude, as can be seen simultaneously naïve and deep (Shattuck, 1968). Thus, the painting is important because it reveals the emotional state of the artist and shows the audience his search for identity.

The Dream is one of the most famous works by the author and great examples of the paintings that were inspired by his interest in wild exotic nature. The Dream is the last picture that the author finished during his life (Adams, 2018). The painting depicts the artist’s former mistress lying nude on a sofa, surrounded by the jungles. The woman reaches out her hand towards a lion and a snake charmer while looking at the nature around her (Nettleton, 2019). The painting grabs the attention of the audience with its bizarre appearance and unusual combination of details.

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The Snake Charmer is another essential work of the artist, and it was the first painting that was commissioned with a large amount of money. In this picture, the author once again turns to the jangle theme. The mysterious asymmetric painting depicts a woman with a flute in the moonlight and a snake charmed by her music. The style of the picture is sophisticated and primitive at the same time, with a naïve, yet the precise depiction of nature and the human (Shattuck, 1968). The surrealism and author’s unconventional approach to painting allows this work to make a strong emotional impact on the audience.


Henri Rousseau is a self-taught French painter who made a profound impact on the development of art in the twentieth century, particularly influencing avant-garde artists. Finding inspiration in the exotic nature of strange foreign lands he had never seen, Rousseau developed his unique style and technique that are characterized by experimentation with forms of expression. Naïve child-like manner that the author employed in his work is one of the central features of his art.

Rousseau’s style was a subject of controversy during his life because of its novelty and unconventional appearance, and the artist became widely recognized only after his death. The works of Henri Rousseau show his professional and personal search for identity, illustrating his complicated relationships with the outside world. Surrealistic and provocatively innovative for the time, these paintings play with the imagination of the audience combining forms and objects in a creative and unexpected way.


Adams, L. S. (2018). The methodologies of art: An introduction. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nettleton, C. (2019). The Artist as Animal in Nineteenth-Century French Literature Palgrave Claremont, CA: Macmillan.

Shattuck, R. (1968). The banquet years: The origins of the avant-garde in France, 1885 to World. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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