Rousseau initially studied under J.-C.-J. Rémond and Guillon Lethiëre. In 1830 he spent several months in the Auvergne, where he painted studies from nature, and it was with a scene from this region that he made his debut at the Paris Salon in 1831.
From the mid-1830s he began to spend increasingly more time in the village of Barbizon, where he settled in 1844. The varied topography of the area of the Forest of Fontainebleau became his chief subject matter. His naturalism was the result of intense, meditative study of nature, and he would often work on a single composition for several years.
Excluded from the Salon for a number of years, his fortune changed after the Revolution of 1848, and in 1849 he exhibited three paintings and won a first class medal.