Henri Rousseau

Part Three Chapter 6

In borrowed apartments we navigate the jungle of self-knowledge, in borrowed bedrooms we chart the topography of love: Magnolia pinks and muted blues, gradations of yellowish green: On pale oak parquet, on double herringbone diagonals, a black rug with floral motifs recalls Douanier Rousseau’s Dream. On walls the colour of wet gypsum—a chalky, pink-tinged white—Carnival Evening and The Sleeping Gypsy confirm Baudelaire’s theme: ‘Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will’.

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897 (detail)

̶  I don’t like his drawing. Even if there’s dignity in his effort, he’s trying too hard.

So you say as, out of the burnous of my blanket, I stick my hand and take the glass you hold out to me: From a raid on Aravane’s bar you’ve retrieved a bottle of cognac.

̶  Thank you.
̶  It’s that combination of neatness and clumsiness that undermines it for me. It’s just too stiff, too dry.

Sitting crossed-legged on the bed, you swing a cashmere throw over your shoulders.

̶  Sorry Sprague, I don’t like Rousseau.
̶  Sorry? No need to be sorry. Cheers!

In the teardrop glow we clink glasses. Hot and velvety the cognac hits my palate.

̶  I wouldn’t have thought you’d like him so much.
̶  I do.
̶  Maybe I’m missing something.
̶  Maybe.
̶  Then tell me what you see. What’s it got going for it, The Sleeping Gypsy?

I could have spoken about the glow of the subtle colours, the rhyme of the precise lines, or the immediacy that springs from the flattened perspective, but instead I simply said:

̶  The enigma of the encounter between the man and the woman.
̶  You mean the lion and the woman.
̶  No, the man and the woman.

And thus I came to explain that if the lion is Rousseau, it is because his unconscious reveals itself in a confession: In the dreamscape of his painting, interdiction and desire contend, creating a tension that makes the work magic.

̶  Aren’t you reading his biography into the painting?
̶  No, his biography simply confirms what is already apparent.
̶  Explain.
̶  All right.

And so I came to share with you my experience of the painting: In an expanded present, in a vibrating space, a being confronts the mystery of what it means to encounter another: Condemned to failure, desire fills the canvas with foreboding. (That emotional charge, that feeling of doom, did it escape you so entirely? The Sleeping Gypsy’s unfathomable simplicity, did it really leave you so indifferent?)

̶  Rousseau was a man who loved women, almost indiscriminately. He painted The Sleeping Gypsy at the time he was busy courting the woman who would become his second wife. One year before his death, he fell madly in love with another woman. She—it’s clear from the letters—not only couldn’t handle the violence of his emotions, but actually disdained them.
̶  I could never have imagined he was like that. His paintings are so childlike, so full of innocence.
̶  He’s an artist. He turned his childhood fantasies into myths.

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897 (detail)

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

̶  And did he at least get that woman he wanted?
̶  No, he didn’t. Instead, he painted The Dream, one of his greatest works.

Dry apricot and honey greet my nostrils as I bring my glass to my lips; dense is the taste of being-with-you as I swallow a sip. Was I wrong to imagine, by the luminous amber of your eyes, that you tasted that taste too?

Shirley Manson as the Lion, Kelly Slater as the Sleeping Gypsy in ‘You Look So Fine’ (Garbage)

Our backs to the headboard, we sit side by side on the bed, suspended in A Carnival Evening. Arm-in-arm Pierrot and Columbine, aglow in their lunar costumes, float in a ghostly landscape. I salute their celebration of dispossession, their disporting in strangerhood: In this souvenir from a dream I feel at home. As I watch the couple balance precariously on the cusp of their adventure—jauntily, as if just freed from the puppeteer’s strings—I feel the grip of your hand in mine freeing me from the grip of my past.

Who’s that hatted man with a moustache peeping out from the kiosk? Maybe it’s not even a man, maybe it’s just a mask? In delight you squeezed my hand when I pointed out to you that typical Rousseau touch, making me believe you’re not totally immune to the Douanier’s enigmatic art. Indeed, charmed by A Carnival Evening, you turned to reconsider the silence of The Sleeping Gypsy. What if the sleeper is dreaming the lion, what if the lion is simply afraid of his own violence?

Henri Rousseau, A Carnival Evening, 1886

Henri Rousseau, A Carnival Evening, 1886 (detail)

̶  Is it the moon, Sprague?
̶  The moon?

You point to A Carnival Evening.

̶  I’m bewitched! That mysterious face in the mirror!
̶  In the mirror? You mean in the kiosk?
̶  No. In the— Look! It’s my face!

I lean over to see my face displace yours.

̶  Of course it’s your face.

A boy slides open a shower curtain. Fǣringa! His heart leaps as a stranger steps out of a mirror. The boy stares into the glass: His face configures a double of the stranger.

̶  But I didn’t…

As you blush all my senses are seduced.

̶  It’s only the mirror’s way of dreaming, Marietta.

I take your hand and thread my fingers through yours.

̶ You didn’t know what you were doing there, did you?
̶  No, I didn’t. I’m sure that cat’s put a spell on me!
̶  No, that’s Rousseau’s magic. Most of his best paintings, the ones with the greatest evocative force, are the ones with a figure in a landscape, and you don’t know what they’re doing there.
̶  Just like in a dream.
̶  Yes.

Your eyes shine and I see mine in them.

̶  Lick my palm, Marietta.

You do so. I pass my hand over my face.

̶  Sprague, have you become a cat?
̶  Didn’t you say identity’s just a fiction, a set of ruses subject to revision?

Laughing, you turn towards me and lick my cheek.

Henri Rousseau, A Carnival Evening, 1886 (detail)



From Nancy Ireson, Interpreting Henri Rousseau (London: Tate Publishing, 2005) pp. 10-15

Henri Rousseau, The Hungry Lion Throws itself on the Antelope, 1905

Rousseau’s paintings, in the twenty-first century, are still as exciting as ever. If, according to contemporary critics, crowds gathered before The Hungry Lion Throws itself on the Antelope at the Salon d’Automne of 1905, in 2005 there are always visitors grouped around his Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) in London’s National Gallery.

And the story is the same in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, or the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Audiences still stop and stare at these strange and marvellous paintings; they are, in the simplest sense, popular. But if his pictures posed difficulties for contemporary visitors to the Salon, even 100 years on they are no easier to decipher.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), 1891

Henri Rousseau, Happy Quartet, 1901-02

Take, for instance, the Happy Quartet of 1901-02. The poet and writer André Salmon—a young contemporary of Rousseau—described it as one of the artist’s most beautiful and important paintings, but could not explain why. Here two nude figures stand in a wooded setting, the male playing a pipe, the female posing with a garland of flowers. This company (recalling groups of mythological or biblical figures) should be, in theory, the very image of tranquillity. Yet in practice, the viewing experience feels dislocated and uneasy. The quasi-tropical plants in the foreground, superimposed onto the scene, seem somewhat out of place in this European-looking clearing. Why has Rousseau placed two semi-naked figures in what could easily be a park or garden? The cherub and the dog placed between the figures are no less confusing. They too seem at odds with the central section of the composition. The child, arrested mid-leap, almost collides with the leg of the musician; the woman glares at her companion while his gaze refuses to meet her eye.

There is nothing conspicuously ‘modern’ about the content of Happy Quartet; but the experience of looking at it is novel. Thus subject matter and appearance in Rousseau’s work often seem contradictory. Even certain of his landscapes present a similar paradox to Happy Quartet. To paint, figuratively, an image of a villa in the suburbs as Rousseau did in his House on the Outskirts of Paris is not an extraordinary undertaking in itself. As a task, it might even appear banal, leaving little scope for creativity. How surprising then, is this small canvas, which takes an everyday scene and makes it strange? Alongside the house, curving both skywards and into the forest beyond, is the strangest of paths.

Henri Rousseau, House on the Outskirts of Paris, 1902

 Rousseau, The Hungry Lion, 1905 (detail)

Rousseau’s most famous works, his celebrated jungle scenes, present a similar paradox. The Hungry Lion Throws itself on the Antelope depicts a bloody and brutal animal combat. But the plump, flesh-eating owl, the smiling big cat and crying victim, make the scene at once terrifying and comical.

What to make of such extraordinary images? Fortunately, though the look of the works remains the same, the task of ‘interpreting Rousseau’ may be easier with hindsight. There is, fortunately, an important difference between viewing Rousseau then and now. If in his lifetime and immediately afterwards the artist had seemed strange, it was not only because of the unusual look of his works. It was due to the way in which, as a person, he was quite unlike the people who praised him. ‘I was young, from a completely different milieu’, wrote Delaunay, one of his most ardent supporters. People like Delaunay—who came from privileged families—were unaccustomed to the petite bourgeoisie, its manners, interests and motivations. Consequently, in their analysis, they tended to dwell upon Rousseau’s character and to attribute the strangeness of his art to his personality. Both, no doubt, seemed rather exotic.

Michel Georges-Michel, Henri Rousseau, c.1909-10

Anonymous, Portrait of Henri Rousseau, c.1880

At the turn of the last century, a time when definitions of art were very limited, the legend of Rousseau the unsophisticated ‘Customs Man’—as celebrated on the gravestone—helped admirers understand and celebrate a new and bewildering art. Now, in a more liberal climate, such stereotypes are no longer required. In order to interpret Rousseau in the twenty first century it is necessary to go beyond the myth. It is time to look, instead, at the paintings themselves, at the environment in which he worked, at the people and purposes for which his images catered. In the light of that context, these strange canvases make much more sense, and their appeal to the avant-garde becomes clearer.

Nancy Ireson, Interpreting Henri Rousseau, Tate Publishing

W. Uhde, Recollection of Henri Rousseau



Edouard Manet

Gustave Moreau

John Everett Millais

Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Gustave Courbet

François Boucher

Paul Klee

Pablo Picasso

Henri Rousseau

Tamara de Lempicka

Nicolas de Staël

Egon Schiele

Hans Holbein, Younger

Vincent Van Gogh

Hieronymus Bosch

Caspar David Friedrich

Leda and the Swan

Andy Warhol

Remedios Varo

Salvador Dali

Claude Monet

William Morris

Paul Delvaux

Frida Kahlo

Dorothea Tanning

Leonor Fini

Mara Marietta