Rousseau in the Jungle

In front of you is a naked woman, reclining on a sofa. The odd part is she’s not in the quiet of her lounge room, or posing for a drawing class with students hunched around her. This naked woman is in the middle of a jungle surrounded by tigers while a baboon plays a flute to a snake and the full moon watches on. What kind of world is this, you ask? Folks, this is the world of Henri Rousseau!

Henri Rousseau (1910) 'Tropical Forest with Monkeys'. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The naked woman stars in one of Rousseau’s most recognised paintings, ‘The Dream’ (1910). ‘I am writing in response to your friendly letter to explain to you the reason the couch in question is where it is,’ wrote Rousseau to art critic André Dupont. What Rousseau had painted bordered on the surreal, and Dupont’s sense of logic was piqued. But the painter answered his critic simply: ‘This woman asleep on the couch is dreaming she has been transported into the forest, hearing the music of the snake charmer’s instrument.’ No more or less than imagination had planted her there.

So the woman was at home all along, only dreaming of the jungle. And Rousseau was at home when he painted her too. From his studio in Paris he dreamt of the deep green wilderness, but never once stepped foot outside of France! It’s strange to think that a man famous for his exotic jungle paintings was not in situ when they were created.

Rousseau was born in 1844 in Laval, France. His family was working class. He attended school until the age of seventeen and then worked briefly for a lawyer, with a subsequent stint in the military, before he took a position as a city toll collector. This is where he earned the nickname “Le Douanier” (the customs inspector), which stuck. He stayed in the role until he turned 49-years-old, at which point he retired to devote himself to art. What Rousseau knew of art was entirely self-taught.

‘Self-taught, eccentric, imbued with sometimes otherworldly vision, Henri Rousseau has most often been portrayed as the quintessential naive painter, the maker of masterpieces by happy accident, or, at best, as a solitary genius, entirely isolated from the mainstream of art history,’ says the Museum of Modern Art. But rather than an innocent, they say, he was an early Modern master – an unheralded predecessor to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and even the Surrealists. Both a surreal quality and a sense of reduction are certainly visible in his works.

Henri Rousseau (1909) 'The Equatorial Jungle'. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Rousseau completed more than twenty-five jungle paintings in his career, most in the last five years of his life. He was the ultimate mind’s eye traveller, with the inspiration for his fantastic landscapes coming from strolls through the Jardin des Plantes, the Paris Zoo and pictures he found in books and magazines.

I don’t know if you’re like me… but when I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream. I feel that I’m somebody else completely.’

As a city-dweller, he escaped through the window of his paintings. He dreamt of places like ‘Tropical Forest with Monkeys’ (1910), where lush forests of inconsistent species thrive: waterlilies next to birds of paradise, next to monkey-laden peppercorn trees. The result is wild and stylised, constructed along flat planes like the work of a cut out artist obsessed with colour blocks. Rousseau’s monkeys go fishing, either from their spot in the branches or from the rocks. The ‘anthropomorphized primates can be seen not as true wild beasts, but rather as representing an escape from the ‘jungle’ of Paris and the everyday grind of civilized life,’ the National Gallery of Art in Washington suggests.

Rousseau painted ‘The Equatorial Jungle’ one year earlier in 1909. With its giant leaves, flowering agaves, and mother-in-law’s tongues, the jungle seems a place of safe haven for camouflaged birds and quizzical animals. The plant-life is dense, and you can imagine that within those depths much unseen activity is going on. Step back another twenty years, and the same level of protection is afforded to the lovers in ‘Rendezvous in the Forest’ (1889). Here dark autumn trees form a screen between the pair and their obligations to the real world. They are safe, and a ray of light descends on them, as they canoodle away on horseback.

Interestingly, ‘Rendezvous in the Forest’ was completed before Rousseau officially retired as a toll collector, and was a gift to his baker! Lucky chap.

Henri Rousseau (1889) 'Rendezvous in the Forest'. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.