Henri Julien Félix Rousseau was born in Laval, France, in 1844 into the family of a plumber; he was forced to work there as a small boy. He attended Laval High School as a day student and then as a boarder, after his father became a debtor and his parents had to leave the town upon the seizure of their house. Though mediocre in some of his high school subjects, Rousseau won prizes for drawing and music. After high school, he worked for a lawyer and studied law, but "attempted a small perjury and sought refuge in the army." He served four years, starting in 1863. With his father's death, Rousseau moved to Paris in 1868 to support his widowed mother as a government employee. In 1868, he married Clémence Boitard, his landlord's 15-year-old daughter, with whom he had six children (only one survived). In 1871, he was appointed as a collector of the octroi of Paris, collecting taxes on goods entering Paris. His wife died in 1888 and he married Josephine Noury in 1898. He started painting seriously in his early forties; by age 49, he retired from his job to work on his art full-time.
Rousseau claimed he had "no teacher other than nature", although he admitted he had received "some advice" from two established Academic painters, Félix Auguste Clément and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Essentially, he was self-taught and is considered to be a naïve or primitive painter.