Henri Rousseau attracted the Parisian avant-garde's attention at the 1886 Salon des Indépendants. Throughout his life he was ridiculed by public and critics, but leading writers and artists sought out the self-taught painter's freshness of vision. In 1885 he quit his job as a customs inspector, or douanier, to pursue painting full-time. Though he claimed to have served in the army in Mexico, scholars have found no proof of this. His imagination made exotic landscapes out of Paris's botanic gardens and wild beasts out of toys and photographs.
Like other Naïve painters, Rousseau used a simplifying style, non-scientific perspective, and bright colors. His particular gifts were a sensitivity to color harmonies and knowing how to subordinate parts of the canvas to the rhythm of the whole. He painted still lifes; elaborate allegories; exotic, rural, and modern urban landscapes; portraits; and enigmatic studies of children. His compositions sometimes seem to be subconscious visions; in this aspect, he anticipated the Surrealists. Rousseau maintained an art school, where he taught painting, diction, and music. He also wrote three plays.
Rousseau had no hesitation in claiming for himself a place at the forefront of painting. He once remarked to his admirer Pablo Picasso, who was then borrowing heavily from African art, that they were the only great contemporary artists: "I in the modern manner and you in the Egyptian."