Progression of Art
Here, Rousseau captures the height of greatness to which he aspired as a painter, presenting himself in outsized scale with brush and palette in hand and wearing a suit and traditional artist's beret, before a landscape that features the Eiffel Tower and a tall-masted ship decorated with world flags. 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 the 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. Rousseau's ambitions to become a noted academic painter are also evoked in the subtitle of this work, which announces a new hybrid genre - the "portrait-landscape." A contemporary critic mocked Rousseau's self-aggrandizing portrayal in this work, writing, "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 in turn, "I am the inventor of the portrait landscape, as the press has pointed out."
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Prague
Surprised! Tiger in a Tropical Storm
In this, Rousseau's first jungle painting, a wide-eyed, tooth-bearing tiger suddenly emerges from the grass, where it has been lurking, with the waving fronds, slanting branches, rain, and dark sky indicating the storm cited in the title. The canvas was also known as "Tigers Pursuing Explorers" and "Storm in the Jungle," alternate monikers suggesting some ambiguity as to its subject matter. Exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, this jungle scene - a theme often treated by academic artists - was ridiculed by many critics for its evident amateurish quality. Yet, for the painter and critic Felix Vallotton, the work was a " 'must-see'... the alpha and omega of painting and so disconcerting that, before so much competency and childish naivete, the most deeply rooted convictions are held up and questioned." Vallotton's description suggests the reasons Rousseau would be so highly acclaimed among modern artists of the early-20th century and later.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
The Sleeping Gypsy
This painting's departure from Rousseau's usual subject matter led many to declare it a forgery, some even attributing it to André Derain. The moonlit scene takes place in a desert, where a female gypsy sleeps with a mandolin and jug by her side, untroubled and - amazingly - unharmed by a curious lion. The strangeness of the scene is enhanced by the precariously sloping plane and presentation of the animal and gypsy as if below the viewer's perspective. The gypsy is dressed in Eastern garb, while the painting as a whole recalls the stories from Arabian Nights, which had been translated into several unabridged versions starting in the mid-1880s. In an attempt to sell the piece to his hometown, Rousseau sent the following description to the Mayor of Laval: "A wandering negress, a mandolin player, sleeps in deep exhaustion, her jug beside her. A lion happens to pass that way and sniffs at her but does not devour her." For its eerie, meditative beauty and image of humankind's harmony with the animal kingdom, The Sleeping Gypsy has attained iconic status. It has been altered or parodied by various artists (with the lion often replaced by a dog or other animal).
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope
The lion and antelope at the center of the painting wear vacant stares that contribute to a surprisingly static attack scene, much of which is taken up by lush trees before a setting sun. Rousseau based the poses of the two animals on a diorama made for the zoological galleries of the Jardin des Plantes, home to a large collection of flora and fauna often visited by the artist. With its reference to an antelope "shedding a tear," the caption that accompanied the work reveals Rousseau's lack of firsthand experience of his wild animal subjects: "The hungry lion, throwing himself upon the antelope, devours him. The panther stands by awaiting the moment when he, too, can claim his share. Birds of prey have ripped out pieces of flesh from the poor animal that sheds a tear!" Among his largest works at 83 by 122 inches and displayed at the Salon d'Automne of 1905, the painting forcefully announced the return of Rousseau's jungle scenes, from which the artist had taken a hiatus between 1891 and 1904. With its absence of three-dimensional illusionism and depiction of jungle savagery, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope was seen as both ancient and modern, inviting comparison to art forms such as cave painting and fresco, while demonstrating the directness of expression to be achieved from the rejection of academic artistic principles. At the Salon, the painting hung near works by artists that included Henri Matisse and André Derain, and may have prompted one keen-eyed critic to refer to the young painters as "Fauves," or "Wild Beasts."
Oil on canvas - Ernst Beyeler Collection, Basel
The Dream is an apt title for the present work, with its surreal depiction of a nude woman reclining on a sofa in a forest. The woman is surrounded by colorful, painstakingly depicted greenery - which reportedly included at least twenty-two shades of green - and inhabitants of the jungle, including several wide-eyed lions who gaze at the strange scene or at the viewer. This image of a humorously out-of-place academic-style nude - reminiscent of neoclassical odalisques portrayed by artists such as Ingres and perhaps modeled on a Polish woman Rousseau once loved - in an exotic setting far from the artist's native France may be seen as Rousseau's response to late-19th-century French colonialist expansion to lands he experienced only through his visits to museums and visual media like magazines and postcards. With its incredible attention to detail, vibrant palette, and absurdist combination of imagery, The Dream reveals why Rousseau's art was so admired by the Surrealists, especially the movement's founder, André Breton, who wrote, "It is with Rousseau that we can speak for the first time of Magic Realism."
In his accompanying caption, one of the many poetic descriptions he often appended to his paintings, Rousseau described it thus:
Yadwigha, in a beautiful dream
Having fallen asleep softly
Heard the sound of a musette
Played by a kindly charmer
While the moon shone down
Upon the flowers, upon the verdant trees
The wild serpents lent their ear
To the merry tunes of the instrument.
The painting captivated the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote, "The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year."
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Snake Charmer
This painting was commissioned by Robert Delaunay's mother, Berthe, Comtesse de Delaunay. Rousseau supposedly decided on the subject for this painting after hearing her stories about her experiences in India. The mysterious figure of the charmer, surrounded by snakes and hidden in shadow except for a glowing pair of eyes, could almost be mistaken for a member of the wildlife. The odd stillness of the work - characteristic of the mood of Rousseau's paintings as a whole - seems particularly appropriate here, as if the song of the flute held the world in a trance. Various formal elements of the work, such as the asymmetrical composition and use of backlit, bright colors, anticipated the work of the Surrealist René Magritte.
Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris