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BIOGRAPHY - Théodore Rousseau (1812 - 1867)


Over Théodore Rousseau, who never sought disfavor by the enunciation of violently revolutionary principles, there hung a cloud which now and again lifted itself, and let a little sunshine into his life, but which in the end overwhelmed him and sent him to his grave an honored, yet a heart-broken man.  (Arthur Tomson, Millet and the Barbizon School, London: George Bell & Sons, 1905, pg. 177)

At the young age of nineteen, Théodore Rousseau abruptly entered the art world of Paris when he received the admiration of many of his fellow artists. His future success appeared secure. His landscapes offered fresh and unique images of rural France, showing his substantial talent as a colorist and interpreter. As time passed, his artistic career failed to progress at the steady pace some may have envisioned, finding only occasional spurts of academic acceptance, his demise plagued by frequent Salon refusals.  He began to be known more as “Le Grand Refusé”, or the “great rejected one,” an evaluation that hovered over his career. What remained constant was the admiration bestowed upon him by other progressive artists and when he was allowed to exhibit, a popularity with the public.  Throughout his artistic career Rousseau proved a challenge to the Salon tradition and established the dominant traits of his artistic temperament, which were, as noted by Nicholas Green in the exhibition catalog Théodore Rousseau: 1812-1867 (London: Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, 1982, pg. 9): “a religious humility before nature combined with an arrogance about the rightness of his point of view, a scorn for 19th century civilization along with a determination to succeed.”  Despite many difficult setbacks orchestrated by classically oriented Salon jurors, Rousseau remained unwavering in his intense devotion to his work and the furtherance of the appreciation and importance of landscape painting in France.

Étienne-Pierre-Théodore Rousseau was born in Paris on April 15th, 1812.  His parents were both from the Jura region of eastern France; they remained petty bourgeoisie who ran a tailors shop in Paris.  Théodore was sent to a respected boarding school in Auteuil, a suburb of Paris which was equally close to the countryside. During his youth Rousseau also spent a great deal of time with his uncle, also an artist, Pierre-Alexandre Pau de Saint-Martin. They did many studies from nature and often worked in the Compiègne forest. Rousseau copied many of his works and began executing them in paint. One of these studies was the Place de la Concorde, which did, albeit deficient in certain details, exhibit an understanding of atmospheric subtleties and the creation of a unified composition. Rousseau returned to Paris after a few years, but was quickly sent to work as a bookkeeper in a sawmill in La Barre, a small city between Dôle and Besançon in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. His period working there was short and while far from his goals as an aspiring artist, it did provide him with many opportunities to immerse himself in nature as he was often sent to work in the forest. After a year, Rousseau returned to Paris where his parents urged him to study for the entrance exam for the exclusive École Polytechnique as they preferred that he pursue a career as an engineer to that of an artist. However, Rousseau had already decided that he wanted to become an artist. His family must not have felt very strongly about his career choice since they allowed him to go to his uncle to further his artistic training. His uncle referred him to Jean-Charles-Joseph Rémond, a Prix de Rome recipient and a figure painter, in Paris.  During his studies with him, Rousseau had little respect for Rémond and chose instead to leave the studio and sketch at Bas Meudon, in the region of Compiègne, and occasionally even as far away as Fontainebleau. He passed the next year working in the atelier of Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, primarily a portraitist, not a landscape painter. Even during this early, formative period Rousseau showed that he had already established a set of artistic goals and a style that was not to be influenced by any of his teachers.

In June of 1830 he grew tire d of Paris and wished to depart for a region where he could find solitude and material for personal expression. He traveled through the mountains of Auvergne, where he amassed hundreds of drawings and sketches from this rugged countryside. Upon his return to Paris in the autumn, these sketches were used as studies for a large landscape called Paysage, site d’Auvergne (Landscape. A Site in Auvergne) which was accepted into the 1831 Salon. Rousseau had officially entered the art world, and he was just nineteen years of age. Phillipe Burty, a leading art critic of the era, (quoted in Millet and the Barbizon School, London: George Bell & Sons, 1905, pg. 201) described the impression of Rousseau as a man and artist:

Rousseau was a young man of rare beauty. Long brown hair and a curly beard framed his fresh-colored face… He lived for his art alone. His hands were beautifully shaped, excessively mobile and eloquent. His manner of speech, at least when I knew him, was wanting in brilliancy until he became animated, which he did after some minutes of conversation, then he spoke with great fluency and I have never heard a master who could expound with such precision his doctrines and his views. 


Rousseau was a quiet man, choosing to reveal his expressiveness through his work. He was known to his friends as “Père Tranquille,” or the quiet father.  For the most part, people warmed to Rousseau. Still, his sensitive temperament caused him to be occasionally reactionary which, on some occasions, cost him some friendships. 


Rousseau’s desire to travel continued throughout his life. During the following spring he set off to Normandy where he met Paul Huet at Honfleur. Returning to Paris, he again used his sketches from his travels to develop a larger scale painting and submitted Vue Prise des Côtes à Granville (View from the Coast of Granville) and Etude d’après Nature (Study from Nature) to the 1833 Salon. He received his first real criticism at this Salon, as he was said to have used a superficial brushwork with overly broad execution, which led to an unclearly defined composition. Rousseau, after this criticism and others, did not change his style to conform. It was also during 1833 that Rousseau made his first extended stay at Chailly on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. He later completed the Lisière d’un Bois Coupé, Forêt de Compiègne (Edge of the Forest, Forest of Compiègne), which earned him a third place medal at the 1834 Salon and was purchased by the Duke of Orléans. His other work submitted to the Salon of 1834, Paysage (Landscape), was rejected.   


In the summer of 1834 Rousseau traveled to the Jura region of France and stayed with his grandmother for several months. He returned to Paris in the fall and began working on La Descente des Vaches des Hauts Plateaux du Jura (The Descent of the Cows from the High Plateaus of the Jura). His studio, now the sixth floor attic at 8 Rue Taitbout, was quite small and the canvas quite large, proving a difficult time for the artist to complete the work. His friend and fellow artist, Ary Scheffer, came to his studio and saw his working conditions. He decided that there was not nearly enough room to finish the canvas, nor was there sufficient lighting, and he brought the canvas to his own studio where Rousseau completed it. Rousseau submitted it to the Salon jury, but it was rejected along with Vue du Château du Broglie (View of the Broglie Chateau). Ary Scheffer, considering the earlier painting a masterpiece, displayed it in his own studio where men, women, art critics, and other painters came to view it.  Some critics, who had never taken notice of Rousseau before, championed his cause. This was a significant moment as it established the right of artists to exhibit works on their own, outside of the official Salon system.  

During the summer of 1836 Rousseau traveled to Barbizon; relocating there the next year. In 1841 he sent L’Allée des Châtaigniers (The Avenue of Chestnut Trees) to the Salon but he was rejected. Just over thirty years later, in the 1868 biography in Le Magasin Pittoresque, it was noted that “One has trouble understanding today how this Allée des Châtaigniers, so popular, so classic, simply so fresh and vigorous, could have been kept out of the exposition, refused by a jury.” These rejections began to exact a toll on Rousseau. It became more and more difficult for him to fully establish his name and reputation outside of his closest progressive artistic circles; it also became more complicated for him to find patrons. He did not have the finances to permit him to travel and considering that for the past few years his inspiration was drawn directly from these journeys and the numerous sketches he produced, this must have been a grave disappointment.    

In 1841, he officially retired to the village of Monsoult on the borders of the forest of the Isle Adam, where his growing friendship with Jules Dupré, another landscape artist of the period, culminated in the two artists sharing the same house. Dupré was more than just a friend to Rousseau, he influenced his work as well. When they were at Isle Adam and Rousseau painted Une Avenue. Forêt de l’Isle Adam (An Avenue in the Forest of the Isle Adam), Rousseau recognized that Dupré’s examples enabled him to “glimpse possibilities he had not even suspected” (as quoted in Jean Bouret, The Barbizon School and 19th Century French Landscape Painting, London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd: 1972, pg. 161).  For the next three years he found himself restless in his tranquil retreat so he took several trips to the Berry, the Indre, the Valley of the Creuse, Villebussière, and other villages.  Then in 1844, Dupré and Rousseau took a longer trip to Landes where they remained for five months and were profoundly influenced by the changing light effects in this region. Rousseau’s work after this period show him wrestling with the execution of these lighting effects in his work.   

Neither of these men submitted works to the 1848 Salon. In part, Rousseau did not submit to the Salon as the 1848 Revolution turned the tables on the Salon jury and much to his surprise, Rousseau found himself on the committee entrusted to hang the pictures for the next public exhibition. Since he did not exhibit in this year, he did receive a formidable state commission from the Republican art administrator Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin amounting to 4,000 francs to complete a landscape – delivered in 1849. The Lisière de la Forêt, Soleil Couchant (Edge of the Forest, Setting Sun) came out of this experience; it was exhibited at the 1850-51 Salon, along with six other paintings. Rousseau was commended with a first place medal at the 1849 Salon, exhibiting Une Avenue, Forêt de l’Isle Adam (An Avenue, l’ Isle Adam Forest), a second Lisière de Forêt, Soleil Couchant (Edge of the Forest, Setting Sun), and Terrains d’automne (Autumn Terrains). This Salon was both a triumph and a disappointment.  While Rousseau was given a First Class medal worth 1,500 francs, his friend, Dupré was given the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Feeling slighted by a certain political conspiracy that Dupré must have led, Rousseau cut his ties with his long-time friend. However, Rousseau was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur on July 16th, 1852. This was a period of intense Salon activity for Rousseau, with 1849 proving a success with respect to the number of paintings exhibited and the fact that Rousseau was given increasing public exposure.  

During the next five to six years he lived primarily at the village of Barbizon.  He exhibited twelve works at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. But from the moment of the Salon of 1857, more and more critics attacked his work for the manner in which he lighted his canvases, an obsession that derived from Rousseau’s earlier observation and travels. At times he overworked his canvases, unable to feel that the process was ever really completed. His earlier work was more poetical and freer from this over-execution. It has been said that from 1864 onwards, “he abandoned his spirited sketching manner to concentrate on a quasi methodical and impartial inventory of all things.” (Bouret, The Barbizon School, pg. 16)

Other changes had also occurred in Rousseau’s life. He had taken in a young girl name Elisa Gros from Besançon, who later was called Madame Rousseau. He remained at Barbizon until 1860 when her health, she suffered from attacks of insanity, forced him to take her to her native Franche-Comté. He made a short trip to Switzerland and returned in dire financial circumstances. He gathered what pictures he still had and sent them to Hôtel Drouot in Paris where they were auctioned at fairly generous prices. But, after extensive administrative auction fees, Rousseau walked away with a paltry amount for twenty five canvases. Still, Rousseau’s work became more and more popular during the latter part of his career.  In 1865, Durand-Ruel and Brame, two leading art dealers of the era, offered him four thousand pounds for any old studies that he had made in his youth and fourteen hundred more for the pictures that he had in hand, a clear attestation to his increasing admiration bestowed on him by critics and collectors. In 1866 he was again elected to the Salon jury and the next year he was made President of the Jury of the Exposition Universelle. He also exhibited several pictures at the Exposition Universelle, receiving the Medal of Honor and selling more than two hundred thousand francs worth of art.  Unfortunately, as had happened to Rousseau too many times before, every other jury member had received an honor or promotion at this Exposition, but Rousseau did not. He remained, as he had been for fifteen years, a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. 

Rousseau never recovered from this final blow and just a month after, he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his right arm, from which he only partially recovered. On August 12th, 1867, Alfred Stevens and Puvis de Chavannes, later to become major masters in their own right, came to Barbizon to present the sick and dying painter with the accolade of his election to the rank of Officier de la Légion d’Honneur. But it was much too late for this recognition, as Rousseau had already been slighted so often during his career that even upon receiving an honor that he had wished for, for such a long time, it was not sufficient recompense for the suffering he had endured. He had a number of strokes that followed one another with increasing rapidity until the 22nd of December, 1867, at just 55 years of age, when he died.          

It has been written of his work that Rousseau:

…only likes the painful and convulsive side of nature; the trees devastated by the wind, branches fallen by the w inds, spread out by old age; the piled up rocks, from where some birch-trees come out like shivering plumes; the wild heathers, subdued by the frost or backed by the scorching heat.  Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1868, pg. 181

Apart from any description of Rousseau’s work, Edmond About in Nos Artistes au Salon de 1857 wrote that far from just exhibiting an exquisite style, he “made a breach in the wall of the historic school, which had lost the habit of regarding nature, and servilely copied the bad copyists of Poussin. This audacious innovator opened an enormous door by which many others have followed him. He emancipated the landscape painters as Moses formerly liberated the Hebrews…On the return of this truant school the young landscapists forced the entrance of the Salon, and it was Théodore Rousseau who broke down the door.” This is perhaps the best light in which to view the contributions of Théodore Rousseau and his art, a painter who is now regarded as one of the purest and most vigorous landscape painters of the nineteenth century and a direct mentor for the entire Impressionist generation. 

For further reading, those interested should also consult Greg M. Thomas’s Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France. The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau, Princeton University, 2000.