Presenting himself in grand scale with brush and palette in hand and wearing a suit and traditional artist's beret, he stands before a landscape featuring the Eiffel Tower and a tall ship decorated with world flags. Another symbol of technological progress used to celebrate the city’s modernity included a hot air balloon.
This work illustrates Rousseau as a petit bourgeois Frenchman who took pride in his civil service position, a traditional academic artist and devoted patriot, a loyal husband, and a simple painter at work with his easel. The artist’s composure, dress and context also announced his ambition as an academic painter worthy of paying tribute to this modern republic.
Rousseau's ambitions to become a noted academic painter are evoked in the sub text of this work, which announces a new hybrid genre – the portrait-landscape. The artist claimed to have invented the ‘portrait-landscape’ style, in which a subject is defined by their surroundings.
Although he completed the portrait in 1890, Rousseau subsequently updated the work with additional autobiographical details: a ribbon of the order of academic distinction, which he added to his lapel in 1901, after becoming a drawing teacher at the Association Philotechnique, and the names of his two wives, Clemence and Josephine, which he later painted on the palette.
A contemporary critic mocked Rousseau’s self-promoting portrayal in this work. He said: "I found it extremely difficult to come to terms with Monsieur Henri Rousseau whom I shall call, if I may, the sensation at the Indépendants. M. Rousseau is bent on renewing the art of painting. The portrait-landscape is his own invention and I would advise him to take out a patent on it, as unscrupulous characters are quite capable of using it." Rousseau proudly responded: "I am the inventor of the portrait landscape, as the press has pointed out."