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Deanna New York
This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Deanna MacDonald

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Henri Rousseau: The Dream - 1910

New York, Museum of Modern Art

Like many of his contemporaries, Rousseau was fascinated by the exotic and foreign. The late 19th century was a time of colonial expansion and information about the world beyond France became part of popular culture. Rousseau read adventure and travel books and visited colonial exhibitions that presented people and goods from distant lands. He was also a frequent visitor to Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, where he sketched tropical trees and plants and marvelled at the exotic animals in its zoo.

Yet for all his fascination with the foreign, Rousseau never once set foot outside France. His seductive and sometimes unsettling paintings of faraway places, like The Dream, were just that: the fantasies of a man who had spent much of his life as a lowly paid customs clerk on the outskirts of Paris (thus his sobriquet Le Douanier – the customs agent).

Rousseau was 49 when he turned to painting full-time after retiring in 1893. A self-taught artist, he produced the conventional genres of the artistic establishment – landscapes, portraits, allegories and erotic scenes – however his interpretations were far from traditional. His references were that of popular culture, not the French Academy. Illustrated magazines, photographs and postcards inspired his strong graphic quality and love of drama. With no formal training he did not hesitate to mix the exotic with the domestic, a highly unconventional approach that mystified audiences.

However, the same qualities thrilled the avant-garde. Rousseau’s unique perspective and odd juxtapositions found enthusiastic acceptance with a whole generation of avant-garde artists, including Delaunay and Picasso. In his naïve visions they could see a reflection of the desires and fears of the new modern world. When The Dream was first exhibited the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire championed Rousseau who had previously been mocked by art critics: ‘The picture radiates beauty,’ Apollinaire wrote, ‘that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year.’

The Dream brings together the studio and the jungle, depicting a nude woman lounging on a sofa (modelled on one in Rousseau’s studio) in the middle of a dense jungle dotted with wide-eyed animals – lions, birds, a snake, a monkey and an elephant – as well as a dark-skinned man in a colourful loincloth playing a pipe; a stereotypical image of the era of the exotic other. The entire canvas is painted with Rousseau’s characteristic bold lines, solid colours and precision with human, animal and foliage rendered with equal weight.

Though Rousseau’s imaginary jungles were based on first-hand observations at the Jardin des Plantes (he probably transferred his sketches onto the canvas with a pantograph, a simple copying device), he freely mixed flora and fauna from different environments and often altered them to the point of abstraction: for Rousseau vegetation was a decorative motif and no actual species of plant can be identified in his pictures. His animals are depicted with almost human characteristics, like human stand-ins staring out at the spectator in mock aggression or surprise, such as the curious lion who peers out of the scene or the second lion who seems surprised to find a nude woman on a sofa in the jungle. Naïve and bold, beautiful and startling, with a dash of the surreal, The Dream is among Rousseau’s best works.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1910 Henri Matisse: Dance, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

1910 Gwen John: Girl with Bare Shoulders, New York, MOMA

1910 Vasily Kandinsky: Sketch for Composition II, New York, Guggenheim Museum


Further Paintings of Interest

Tiger in a Tropical Storm

Henri Rousseau