Ten of the Most Famous Paintings by Henri Rousseau

Best known for his jungle paintings, Henri Rousseau (1844 – 1910) was very much an outsider in the art world. He was a self-taught artist, and didn’t paint in the traditional academic style of the Salon and French Academy. Rather, his artwork expressed an untrained style, featuring bold colours and flat figures. This style became known as “naïve” or “primitive”, and although it was often ridiculed by the artistic establishment, it was later embraced by avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso and Robert Delaunay.

To introduce you to Henri Rousseau, I’ve taken a look at ten of his best paintings. But if you’re interested in learning even more about this fascinating artist, I’d personally recommend reading Interpreteing Henri Rousseau by Nancy Ireson.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surpris !)

The Sleeping Gypsy (La Bohémienne Endormie) by Henri Rousseau
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surpris !) by Henri Rousseau

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Tiger in a Tropical Storm, also known as Surprised!, was the first of Henri Rousseau’s iconic jungle paintings. It shows a tiger in the jungle, illuminated by lightning, and either preparing to pounce on its prey, or cowering from the sudden flash.

When it was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891, the painting was mocked by some critics for its “childish” composition – in particular, the flatness of the tiger and surrounding foliage, grass, trees and plants, which showed a lack of academic instruction. However, this flatness is now celebrated as part of Rousseau’s naïve style. Another noteworthy feature of this artwork is the lashing rain, which was painted using diagonal stripes of translucent silver paint.

As Henri Rousseau never travelled to the jungle, the plants depicted were inspired chiefly by his frequent visits to the Botanical Gardens in Paris and domestic house plants, whilst his tiger was potentially inspired by the zoo in the Gardens, as well as its Zoology Galleries, which exhibited stuffed animals. Tigers had also been depicted by Eugène Delacroix (such as in the etching Tiger Resting in the Desert) , and were shown in non-fiction books, which were both other possible sources of inspiration.

The Sleeping Gypsy (La Bohémienne Endormie)

The Sleeping Gypsy (La Bohémienne Endormie) by Henri Rousseau
The Sleeping Gypsy (La Bohémienne Endormie) by Henri Rousseau

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Like Rousseau’s jungle paintings, The Sleeping Gypsy explores a theme not uncommon among his fellow Parisian artists at the time. In this case, it is the Romany people – known in France as les bohémiens – an ethnic group believed to have originated from northern India, who have travelled across Europe for 1000 years.

In this painting, Rousseau’s naïve style is evident with the flattened forms, the childish depiction of the woman’s face and the almost cartoonish eye of the lion, with its clearly distinguishable pupil and sclera (the white part of the eye).

During the exhibition of the painting at the 13th Salon des Indépendants, Rousseau wrote to the mayor of his hometown, Laval, asking him to buy the piece, which Rousseau stated was a tribute to the town. However, the mayor declined at the painting was sold to a Parisian charcoal merchant instead.

The painting appears in an episode of The Simpsons called “Mom and Pop Art”, when Homer falls asleep and is transported in a dream to the scene depicted in The Sleeping Gypsy.

The Snake Charmer (La Charmeuse de serpents)

The Snake Charmer (La Charmeuse de serpents) by Henri Rousseau
The Snake Charmer (La Charmeuse de serpents) by Henri Rousseau

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The growing appreciation of Henri Rousseau’s work among the avant-garde led to him being commissioned by Countess Berthe Félicie de Rose, the mother of artist Robert Delaunay, to paint The Snake Charmer. It is believed the painting was based on the Countess’ stories about the time she spent in the West Indies.

A female snake charmer is depicted in a jungle location, yet the painting seems much more otherworldly than most of Rousseau’s other jungle themed works. In fact, the Musée d’Orsay described the scene as a “disquieting Garden of Eden”.

Due to its dreamlike qualities – with the moon providing backlight, the fantastical vegetation, and the use of bright, bold colours – the painting anticipates surrealism, which took off in the 1920s. In particular, the colours are similar to those later used by surrealist artist René Magritte.

Along with its colours, the asymmetrical composition of The Snake Charmer highlights Rousseau’s “amateurish” technique.

The Dream (Le Rêve)

The Dream (Le Rêve) by Henri Rousseau
The Dream (Le Rêve) by Henri Rousseau

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With its absurd scene – a woman lying on a sofa in the jungle – and its exploration of dreaming, Le Rêve is another example of Henri Rousseau anticipating surrealism. The woman depicted is Yadwigha (Jadwiga), Rousseau’s Polish mistress from his younger years. Looking closely at the painting, one can also see a native musician playing the flute in a colourful striped skirt, as well as a lion, a lioness, some birds, some monkeys, a snake, and an elephant.

Although his naïve style is retained, Rousseau’s use of the reclining female nude is reminiscent of those in the artwork of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

When an art critic asked Rousseau why there was a sofa in the painting, he replied that the woman was asleep on the sofa and dreaming that she had been transported to this exotic location. The painting was also accompanied by a poem whose first two lines (translated into English) stated Yadwigha in a beautiful dream / Having fallen softly to sleep.

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (Moi-même, portrait-paysage)

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (Moi-même, portrait-paysage) by Henri Rousseau
Myself, Portrait-Landscape (Moi-même, portrait-paysage) by Henri Rousseau

This self-portrait by Henri Rousseau encapsulates his lofty aspirations as a painter. He depicts himself on an exaggerated scale, holding his paintbrush and palette, and wearing an artist’s beret. He also pays homage to the French Republic by painting the French flag on the bowsprit of the ship, as well as the Eiffel Tower and a hot air balloon in the background.

(The French were pioneers of the hot air balloon as we know it today – in 1783, the first unmanned hot air balloon flight was launched by French scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, and later that year, the first manned flight took off from Paris in a balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers.)

With this painting, Henri Rousseau claimed to have invented the genre of the “portrait-landscape”, which is essentially a self-portrait in a specific location that is relevant to the person being depicted. The portrait was completed in 1890, but Rousseau subsequently added a ribbon – awarded to him after he became a drawing teacher at the Philotechnical Association in Paris – to the lapel of his jacket. He also later added the names of his first and second wives, Clémence and Josephine, to the palette.

The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (Le lion ayant faim se jette sur l’antilope)

The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (Le lion ayant faim se jette sur l'antilope) by Henri Rousseau
The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (Le lion ayant faim se jette sur l’antilope) by Henri Rousseau

The Hungry Lion was painted after Rousseau’s return to jungle paintings, from which he had taken a 10 year break due to the negative critical reception of Tiger in a Tropical Storm. It was first exhibited in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne, and displayed alongside the avant-garde artists Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck, who later became known as Fauves.

Although Rousseau was not considered a Fauve, the artists of Fauvism greatly admired him and took inspiration from his work, in particular his depictions of African landscapes, his bright bold colours, and his untrained, amateur technique, which they saw as reminiscent of European folk art.

Like his other jungle scenes, The Hungry Lion features lush jungle vegetation painted using many different shades of green, among which Rousseau has painted various animals, including an owl, another bird, a panther, and an ape-shaped silhouette. The lion and the antelope were based on a stuffed exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Paris, showing a lion attacking an antelope.

Boy on the Rocks (Garçon sur les rochers)

Boy on the Rocks (Garçon sur les rochers) by Henri Rousseau
Boy on the Rocks (Garçon sur les rochers) by Henri Rousseau

Boy on the Rocks was one of the numerous portraits depicting a child that Henri Rousseau painted, another notable example being Child with a Doll (1905). Like the subjects in most of his other portraits of children, the boy in this painting is somewhat unsettling. His body is disproportionate and his face seems more like that of an adult – a feature that was more common among Medieval European paintings of babies and children, such as Madonna and Child by Paolo Ucello.

The unsettling effect of Boy on the Rocks is also evoked with its flatness and two-dimensionality, a common feature across Rousseau’s body of work. Similarly, the boy’s position on the rocks doesn’t seem very natural; it’s almost as if Rousseau has “copied and pasted” him onto the landscape.

The Football Players (Les Joueurs de Football)

The Football Players (Les Joueurs de Football) by Henri Rousseau
The Football Players (Les Joueurs de Football) by Henri Rousseau

Despite its title, The Football Players seems to show an informal game of rugby – a sport that had taken off in France around the end of 19th century and was growing in popularity. In 1900, rugby was played at the Paris Summer Olympics (when the French took gold), and in 1905 the first game between England and France took place.

The painting is noted for the bright autumnal foliage, the merry atmosphere, and the placement of four trees in the distance that seem to echo the four rugby players. As per Rousseau’s naïve style, the figures painted are very two-dimensional and flat. The Football Players was exhibited in 1908 at the Salon des Indépendants and is now displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Carnival Evening (Un Soir de Carnival)

Carnival Evening (Un Soir de Carnival) by Henri Rousseau
Carnival Evening (Un Soir de Carnival) by Henri Rousseau

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This painting was the first of many by Henri Rousseau to be exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, in 1886. There is a poetic quality to the picture, particularly within Rousseau’s delicate rendition of the wiry tree branches, and his use of colour to depict the dusk sky fading from orange/pink to blue.

Nevertheless, Rousseau maintains a slightly eerie atmosphere with the barren trees, the face in the window of the hut, and the moonlit sky. As a result, the couple in the carnival costumes seem vulnerable to the prevailing darkness and desolate forest. The painting is currently housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A Centennial of Independence (Le centenaire de l’indépendance)

A Centennial of Independence (Le centenaire de l'indépendance) by Henri Rousseau
A Centennial of Independence (Le centenaire de l’indépendance) by Henri Rousseau

Painted in 1892, this piece celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the First French Republic in 1792. Rousseau’s inscription for the painting ran as follows: “The people dance round the two Republics, that of 1792 and that of 1892, holding hands, to the tune of ‘Auprès de ma blonde qu’il fait bon fait bon dormir.'”

The dance being performed is the farandole, an energetic chain dance that is popular in Provence. Rousseau copied the dancers, most likely using a pantograph, from an illustration in the daily French newspaper Le Petit Journal, which ran from 1863 to 1917. The people are wearing Phrygian caps, which became a symbol of liberty during the French Revolution, and are known in French as “bonnets rouges” (red caps) or “bonnets de la Liberté” (Liberty caps).

“The two Republics” that Rousseau refers to are represented by the two female figures in the centre of the painting who are each holding a flag. Naturally, “that of 1792” is the First French Republic; “that of 1892” refers to the Third French Republic, which was formed in 1870 and lasted until 1940. “Auprès de ma blonde” is simply a popular French song dating back to the 17th century that was often used sung as a marching song.

With this painting, Henri Rousseau pays a patriotic homage to the French Republic, a sentiment later repeated in his 1907 piece, The Representatives of Foreign Powers coming to salute the Republic as a Token of Peace.

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