Henri Rousseau

Rousseau's Tropical Forest with Monkeys, 1910
Henri Rousseau, Tropical Forest with Monkeys, 1910, National Gallery of Art, John Hay Whitney Collection

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) was a clerk in the Paris toll service who dreamed of becoming a famous artist. This job allowed him to support his family and gave him time to pursue his true passion—art. From his post at the toll gates and on strolls through the suburbs of Paris, Rousseau observed the world and filled numerous notebooks with sketches from nature. He retired at age forty-nine to become a full-time artist. 

Although he painted many exotic scenes, Rousseau never left France. He often explored the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden and zoo in Paris where he studied and drew plants and wild animals. He visited museums for artistic inspiration, and based some painted characters on pictures in books and magazines. The public laughed at Rousseau’s bold, primitive style, but he was admired and championed by modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and the surrealists.

Compare Tropical Forest with Monkeys to The Equatorial Jungle, below. Try to spot things the two paintings have in common and think about how they are different. Rousseau exaggerated the size of common plants and flowers, creating a lush environment for the creatures that populate his fantasy landscapes. The animals sometimes blend into the background or hide in the trees, so you need to look carefully to find them all. Is that a snake lurking in the grass? How many monkeys do you see? Click on each picture to enlarge. They will open in separate windows so you can compare them side by side.

Rousseau's The Equatorial Jungle

Henri Rousseau, The Equatorial Jungle, 1909, National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

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