Meet the Artist: Henri Rousseau

We woke the very-much-dead artist for a quick q&a.
Henri Rousseau had an active imagination. His paintings of dense jungles and wild animals might suggest that he was a world traveler in his day, but he actually never left his home country, France (and who can blame him—those pains au chocolat are très magnifique). He just knew where to look for inspiration. Rousseau died in 1910, so we broke out our ouija board and coaxed his spirit into sharing about his life, death, and very intimate funeral.
How did you get into painting?
I liked drawing as a child. I even won a couple of small prizes for my art. But it wasn’t until my 40s that I took up painting. When I was 49, I retired from my job as a toll and tax collector—people loved to call me Le Douanier, which means “the customs officer”—so I could pursue the work I really cared about. I had no teacher other than nature.
Who or what inspired you?
Everything around me. I never set foot in a jungle—I never even left France—but that didn’t stop me from painting them. I learned from illustrations in children’s books, the botanical gardens around Paris, taxidermy wild animals… even some of the men with whom I served in the army. They told me stories of Mexico. You don’t need to experience something in order to paint it. You just need to be curious.

The Dream, 1910Get the puzzle!

Most of your success came after your death. What was that like?
It was rather annoying, to be honest. I may have gotten into painting later in my life, but I thought I was good enough to exhibit alongside some of the greats, and for years critics refused to take me seriously, calling my paintings childlike. It is called style!
Bien sûr! But Picasso was a big supporter of your work. Tell me about Le Banquet Rousseau.
Ah, Pablo. What a marvelous man. He saved one of my paintings from being sold on the street as a canvas. Can you imagine? Quelle horreur! He threw this banquet in my honor at his studio, two years before my death. It was a burlesque party in part, so everyone had a wild time. Even Gertrude Stein was dancing!

The Football Players, 1908

You’ve influenced many esteemed artists since, like Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Joni Mitchell… even facebook used your painting Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo as a reference for an ad campaign a couple of years ago.
I am not sure about this facebook, but I am very pleased that my work lives on and continues to inspire people.
What did you think of your funeral?
I was touched. Of course, I thought more than seven people would show up, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a say in the matter. I was grateful for the friends who did turn out—Paul Signac, Robert Delaunay and his wife, my landlord… a tasteful, intimate gathering. Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a beautiful epitaph for my tombstone. I wish I could have been there.

Self-portrait, 1890

What is your favorite place to haunt?
I don’t haunt. I paint.
Forgive me, but how do you paint when you’re dead?
[Laughs uncontrollably for 10 minutes]

Woman Walking in an Exotic Forest, 1905. Get the puzzle!

Ok, moving on… How does it feel to see your work turned into a jigsaw puzzle?
I’m delighted! I would not want to put one together myself, but I love the idea of it. It’s a much easier way to travel to a faraway place… like a jungle.
What advice would you give to young artists?
Life is long, but it is not forever. Make work you are proud of. And maybe try befriending museum curators.
Go on an adventure with a Rousseau puzzle or two, then catch our conversation with another dead artist: Alexej von Jawlensky.