- "The feline, though ferocious,
hesitates to pounce upon its prey,
who, overcome by fatigue,
lies in a deep sleep."
Written by Rousseau on the frame of the painting.
The mind's eye of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) occupied a different but equally powerful world of personal fantasy. Gauguin had journeyed to the South Seas in search of primitive innocence; Rousseau was a primitive without leaving Paris – an untrained amateur painter who held a post as a customs collector hence the sobriquet, le douanier meaning The Customs Man.
- From his stations at the toll gates at the Auteuil Embankment and the Vanves Gate, Rousseau observed the world around him and filled numerous notebooks with drawings. He noted that "my superiors at the tollgate used to assign me to less demanding duties so that I would find it easier to work." At age forty-nine, Rousseau retired from the customs service to become a full-time artist. He settled in the Plaisance section of Paris a poor working-class neighborhood behind Montparnasse. Here he found a one-room studio where he was surrounded by his art.
- Rousseau was an artist from an earlier era: he died in 1910, long before the Surrealist painters championed his art. Pablo Picasso, half-ironically, brought Rousseau to the attention of the art world with a dinner in his honor in 1908: an attention to which Rousseau thought himself fully entitled. Although Rousseau's greatest wish was to paint in an academic style, and he believed that the pictures he painted were absolutely real and convincing, the art world loved his intense stylization, direct vision, and fantastical images.
- Such whole confidence in himself as an artist enabled Rousseau to take ordinary book and catalogue illustrations and turn each one into a piece of genuine art: his jungle paintings, for instance, were not the product of any first-hand experience and his major source for the exotic plant life that filled these strange canvases was actually the tropical plant house in Paris.
For years Rousseau's art was mocked and called "simple minded" however in 1886 he exhibited his work at the Salon des Refusés garnering the admiration of such contemporaries as Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. He wrote: "Nothing makes me happier than to contemplate nature and to paint it. Would you believe it that when I go out in the country and see all that sun, all that greenery and all those flowers, I sometimes say to myself: 'All that belongs to me, it does.'"
As Goya proved earlier, in his horrifying Saturn Devouring His Children and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, both fantastic representations of human depravity and decadence which can be revealed when imagination turns a critical eye towards society. Painted in 1897 The Sleeping Gypsy is an oil on canvas measuring 51" x 6'7" (129.5 x 200.7 cm) and currently resides at The Museum of Modern Art in New York as a gift from Nelson A. Rockefeller. Even in the face of dazzling disparity, exaggeration, and ordinariness, the painting possesses mysterious poetry. Wanting to preserve the isolation of the child with his simplified forms a gypsy woman lies sleeping in a wonderfully colored dress, a lion with his tail in the air, examines her curiously while the button-eye looks intently at the observer prompting many to ask, What does Rousseau's lion want with me?
Some experts relate that Rousseau would sing in a loud voice to keep up his courage when painting startling vistas of wild animals. As he worked he became a part of the make-believe world he produced. Poet and friend Apollinaire, recounted that Rousseau 'sometimes got so scared he began to tremble and had to rush to the window for air.' Only a childlike artist with a simple, naïve vision can understand this elevation and make others see it as dauntingly true.
A mild yet wonderfully self-confident man, Rousseau held a deep conviction with regards to the spiritual world. He once asked some visitors who were watching him paint, "Did you notice how my hand was moving?"
"Of course," they said, "you were painting."
"No, no," he answered, "not I. It was my dead wife who guided my hand. Didn't you see her or hear her? 'Keep at it, Henri,' she whispered. 'It's going to come out right in the end.'"
After painting portraits and Parisian scenes, during the 1890's he turned to the highly original depictions of fantasy. These mature pictures are typically composed of tropical scenes with human figures at rest or play and with beasts mysteriously charmed to an alert stillness. The French self-taught artist who's bold colors, flat designs and imaginative subject matter were praised and imitated by modern European artists. Rousseau described paintings that had a classic, timeless quality "Egyptian-style." And on one occasion told Picasso, "We are the two great painters of the age, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern style."
Today his work it is admired for its simplicity and power. His paintings inspired later artists to create surreal and dreamlike images. Not easily classified into any definitive artistic style of the time—impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism or cubism—Rousseau's efforts are considered a forerunner of surrealism because of its dream-like sensibility and The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, painted over thirty years later, has a dreamlike quality much like Rousseau's bridging the transition from realistic and academic art of the nineteenth-century to the modernist directions of the twentieth century.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Masada," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.