Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born on May 21, 1844. His style is referred to as primitive or naïve, as in his self-portrait above. Like many artists and writers, he had a day job to pay the bills, in Rousseau’s case, as a customs officer, or douanier. Rousseau eventually quit his job to paint full time. He had no formal instruction “except nature,” as he liked to say. Some of his most famous canvases are huge, detailed jungle scenes, which is rather extraordinary for a man who never left France. The Jardin des Plantes in Paris was his inspiration, as were taxidermied animals. Although critics were generally pretty cool toward him, Picasso raved about Rousseau’s talent. More recently, his art inspired the animated films Kirikou and Madagascar. How ironic that someone who never saw a jungle inspired the appearance of two movies about Africa. His work hangs in many major art museums, including the Guggenheim and MoMA in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art near where I live, the National Gallery in Washington, the Tate in London, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. He died in 1910 at the age of 66.
Today’s expression, dans la nature, literally means “in nature,” but figuratively means “into thin air.” Rousseau’s talent seemed to come from thin air but the enduring evidence is in the museums of all the countries he never got to in his lifetime.