Rousseau was born at Laval and first worked as an inspector at a toll station on the outskirts of Paris (1871-85). From this his popular name 'le douanier' (the customs officer) is derived. He took seriously to painting after retirement and exhibited from 1886 at the Salon des Indépendants. He is best known for his jungle fantasy pictures, of which the Collection contains one example.
Rousseau was apparently indebted to Gauguin in the composition of his works, and to traditional Salon painters, like Gérôme, in his careful technique. His work attracted a small group of admirers, including Picasso, Léger, and the poet Apollinaire, but he was otherwise regarded as a complete eccentric.