How did this primitive artist, whose style still commands scornful adjectives such as "naive" and "simple," escape relegation to the margins of art history? It was, as the writer André Malraux pointed out, his schmoozing with well-established masters that anchored his position in the history of modern art.

Following some personal challenges, Rousseau managed to make a name for himself among some of the artists of the day. He continued to improve his mastery to become one of the world's best realistic painters. Distinguishable because of his bushy beard, the artist he had long been a member of the Independants, choosing to produce work designed to elevate the beautiful and the good.

During his lifetime Rousseau became something of a sensation within the relatively small Parisian art scene. In the sense that he had limited professional success during his lifetime, Rousseau can be said to have invented himself – he arrived at exhibitions and dinner parties uninvited, assuming the role of an honoured guest – just as he invented images unlike anything around him. After his death notable artists considered him a major force in the art world.

One of a number of high profile paintings developed the same year, Rousseau's Artillerymen was completed in 1895. It is likely this painting was inspired by his own military career – Rousseau was said to have served in the army from 1863 for four years. An oil on canvas, it has been interpreted as Rousseau's idiosyncratic attempt to depict modern times through group a portrait of 14 handsome military men. Together, the identical handlebar moustachioed men present a high-spirited image of an artillery battery.