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b. 1844, Laval, France; d. 1910, Paris
Born May 21, 1844, in Laval, France, Henri Rousseau attended the lycée there until 1860. While working for a lawyer in 1863, Rousseau was charged with petty larceny and joined the army to avoid scandal. He never saw combat and did not travel outside France, but his colleagues’ adventures in Mexico inspired him to create legends of his own foreign journeys. Upon his father’s death in 1868, Rousseau left the army. The following year he entered the Paris municipal toll-collecting service as a second-class clerk; he was never promoted although he has traditionally been called “Le Douanier” (customs officer). In 1884 Rousseau obtained a permit to sketch in the national museums. He sent two paintings to the Salon des Champs-Elysées in 1885, and from 1886 until his death, he exhibited annually at the Salon des Indépendants.
By 1893 Rousseau retired from the toll service on a small pension and began to paint full-time. The same year the artist met the writer Alfred Jarry, who encouraged him and introduced him into literary circles. In 1899 he wrote a five-act play entitled La Vengeance d’une orpheline russe. A waltz he composed, “Clémence,” was published in 1904. Rousseau became friendly with Robert Delaunay by 1906. In 1908 he began to hold musical and family evenings in his studio. Late that year Picasso arranged a banquet in honor of Rousseau, which was attended by Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and Marie Laurencin, among others.
By 1909 Rousseau’s paintings were acquired by the dealers Ambroise Vollard and Joseph Brummer. His first solo show was arranged in 1909 by Wilhelm Uhde and took place in a furniture shop in the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. Rousseau died on September 2, 1910, in Paris. The same year an exhibition of his work in the collection of Max Weber took place at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery “291” in New York. He was given a retrospective at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911.