Henri Rousseau is one of the most popular French post-impressionist painters. His path to recognition, however, was unusual. He worked for many years as a toll and tax collector, earning him the nickname of ‘Le Douanier’, meaning ‘the customs officer’. It was only in his early 40s that he began taking painting seriously, and aged 49 he retired to commit fully to his art. He was, therefore, a self-taught artist, and ridiculed throughout his lifetime by critics.
Without the formal training of a professional artist, Rousseau championed painting in the Naïve manner. His art has a childlike simplicity and frankness with rudimentary expression of perspective and form, echoing imagery in traditional folk art.
A dense jungle
One of Rousseau’s final pieces was The Dream, a large oil painting measuring 80.5 x 117.5 in. This is an enigmatic image. The setting is a moonlit landscape of lush jungle foliage: here are huge leaves, lotus blossoms and citrus fruits. Within this dense canopy all kinds of creatures lurk – birds, monkeys, an elephant, a lion and a lioness, and a snake. Rousseau used over twenty shades of green to create this foliage, resulting in sharp contours and sense of depth. This masterful use of colour captivated the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who enthused “The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year.”
But there are two human figures here, too. Firstly, a man with dark skin stands amongst the foliage. He wears a colourful striped skirt and plays a horn. He looks directly out towards the viewer with an unrelenting gaze. His music is listened to by the second figure in the painting – a nude woman with long, brown hair in plaits. This is striking and strange: she reclines on a couch, putting her at total odds with the natural surroundings.
Rousseau offered some explanation to this absurd combination, writing, “The woman asleep on the couch is dreaming she has been transported into the forest, listening to the sounds from the instrument of the enchanter”. The jungle surroundings, then, are an external visualisation of internal imagination. Indeed, this painting is titled ‘Le Rêve’, meaning ‘The Dream’.
Rousseau created over twenty paintings in a jungle setting, most notably ‘Surprised!’. This fascination was probably inspired by Paris’ Museum of Natural History and its Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden and zoo. He wrote of the effect these visits had on him: ‘When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream.’
The woman is based on Yadwigha, Rousseau’s Polish mistress in his younger years. Her form is curvaceous and voluptuous – an echo of the sinuous forms of the pink-bellied snake which slithers through the undergrowth nearby.
An important work
The painting was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants from March to May 1910, not long before the artist’s death on 2nd September 1910. Rousseau penned a poem to accompany the painting when it was displayed, which translates as:
‘Yadwigha in a beautiful dream
Having fallen gently to sleep
Heard the sounds of a reed instrument
Played by a well-intentioned [snake] charmer.
As the moon reflected
On the rivers [or flowers], the verdant trees,
The wild snakes lend an ear
To the joyous tunes of the instrument.’
Art historians have speculated on Rousseau’s source of inspiration. It’s likely historical paintings played a part: the reclining female nude was an established tradition in the canon of Western Art, most notably Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia, which Rousseau was familiar with. It’s also thought that Emile Zola’s novel Le Rêve played a part. Rousseau’s art, in turn, was a great source of inspiration for other art movements. Absurd paintings such as The Dream were a crucial precedent for the Surrealist artists Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. They, too, used incongruous combinations and dreamlike imagery in their work.
The Dream was bought by the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard directly from the artist in February 1910. Then, in January 1934, it was sold to the wealthy clothing manufacturer and art collector Sidney Janis. Twenty years later, in 1954, it was bought from Janis by Nelson A. Rockefeller who donated it to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It remains on display at MoMA where it remains one of the gallery’s most popular paintings.