Henri Rousseau’s Heartening Story of Success after a Lifetime of Rejection, Illustrated
How a kind old man who spent his life in poverty, worked as a toll collector, and was entirely self-taught became one of the world’s greatest artists.
By Maria Popova
“People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her fantastic manifesto for the creative life, one of the best books of the year, “because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized.” Few artists in history have lived through this street combat with more dignity and resilience of spirit than French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau (May 21, 1844–September 2, 1910). Long before history came to celebrate him as one of the greatest artists of his era, long before he was honored by major retrospectives by such iconic institutions as the MoMA and the Tate Museum, long before Sylvia Plath began weaving homages to him into her poetry, he spent a lifetime being not merely dismissed but ridiculed. And yet Rousseau — who was born into poverty, began working alongside his plumber father as a young boy, still worked as a toll collector by the age of forty, and was entirely self-taught in painting — withstood the unending barrage of harsh criticism with which his art was met during his entire life, and continued to paint from a deep place of creative conviction, with an irrepressible impulse to make art anyway.
I was instantly taken with The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (public library | IndieBound) by writer Michelle Markel and illustrator Amanda Hall not only because I have a soft spot for beautifully illustrated biographies that introduce young readers to inspiring cultural icons — such as those of Pablo Neruda, Julia Child, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but also because it tells an emboldening real-life story, and a stunningly illustrated one, of remarkable resilience and optimism in the face of public criticism, of cultivating a center so solid and a creative vision so unflinching that no outside attack can demolish it and obstruct its transmutation into greatness.
Henri Rousseau wants to be an artist.
Not a single person has ever told him he is talented.
He’s a toll collector.
He’s forty years old.
But he buys some canvas, paint, and brushes, and starts painting anyway.
Rousseau’s impulse for art sprang from his deep love of nature — a manifestation of the very thing that seventeen-year-old Virginia Woolf intuited when she wrote in her diary that the arts “imitate as far as they can the one great truth that all can see”.
Unable to afford art lessons, Rousseau educated himself by going to the Louvre to study the paintings of his favorite artists and examining photographs, magazines, and catalogs to learn about the anatomy of the human body.
At the age of forty-one, he showed his work as part of a big art exhibition, but his art — vibrant, flat, seemingly childish — was met, as Markel writes, with “only mean things.” Even so, Rousseau saved the reviews and pasted them into his scrapbook.
With his voracious appetite for inspiration, Rousseau visited the World’s Fair, where he was especially enchanted by the exhibits of exotic lands. “They remind him of adventure stories he loved when he was a boy,” Markel writes. The vivid images haunted him for days, until he finally turned to the easel to exorcise his restless imagination.
He holds his paintbrush to the canvas. A tiger crawls out. Lightning strikes, and wind whips the jungle grass.
Sometimes Henri is so startled by what he paints that he has to open the window to let in some air.
But for all his earnest creative exuberance, he is met with derision.
Every year Henri goes back to the art exhibition to show new paintings. He fusses over the canvases and retouches them until the last minute.
And every year the art experts make fun of him. They say it looks like he closed his eyes and painted with his feet.
And yet Rousseau manages to embody Georgia O’Keeffe’s credo that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant… making your unknown known is the important thing” — he continues to paint, to study nature, and to rejoice in the process itself.
One night, he dreams up a painting of which he is especially proud, depicting a lion looking over a sleeping gypsy with friendly curiosity.
Once again he takes his work to the art show. This time, perhaps, he’ll please the experts. His pulse races.
The experts say he paints like a child. “If you want to have a good laugh,” one of them writes, “go see the paintings by Henri Rousseau.”
By now Henry is used to the nasty critics. He knows his shapes are simpler and flatter than everyone else’s, but he thinks that makes them lovely.
Everything he earns by giving music lessons, he spends on art supplies. But he lives by Thoreau’s definition of success.
His home is a shabby little studio, where one pot of stew must last the whole week. But every morning he wakes up and smiles at his pictures.
At sixty-one, Rousseau is still living in poverty, but happily paints his jubilant junglescapes. He continues to hope for critical acclaim and continues to be denied it, cruelly, by the “experts,” one of whom even says that “only cavemen would be impressed by his art.”
At last, Rousseau, already an old man, gets a break — but the recognition comes from a new generation of younger artists, who befriend him and come to admire his work. More than his talent and his stomach for criticism, however, one comes to admire his immensely kind and generous heart.
Whenever Henri has money to spare, and stages a concert in his little studio, all the artists come. Along with the grocer, locksmith, and other folks from the neighborhood, they listen to Henri’s students and friends play their musical instruments. Henri gives the shiniest, reddest apples to the children.
Eventually, even Picasso pays heed and throws old Henri a banquet, at which “the old man sits upon a makeshift throne” playing his violin as people dance and celebrate around him, his heart floating “like a hot-air balloon above the fields.”
At the end of his life, Rousseau paints his masterwork “The Dream” and finally becomes successful by a public standard as the critics, at last, grant him acclaim. But the beautiful irony and the ennobling message of the story is that he was successful all along, for he had found his purpose — a feat with which even Van Gogh struggled for years — and filled each day with the invigorating joy of making his unknown known.
A hundred years later, the flowers still blossom, the monkeys still frolic, and the snakes keep slithering through Henri’s hot jungles. His paintings now hang in museums all over the world. And do you think experts call them “foolish,” “clumsy,” or “monstrous”? Mais non! They call them works of art.
By an old man,
by a onetime toll collector,
by one of the most gifted self-taught artists in history:
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau is absolutely wonderful from cover to cover. Complement it with Ray Bradbury on weathering the storm of rejection and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your art.
Illustrations reproduced with the permission of Amanda Hall
Published December 9, 2014