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Henri Rousseau - Surprised!

by Dr. Stefanie Meier-Kaftan

In the middle of the jungle, the trees bend and the leaves and plants rustle in the strong wind. A thunderstorm has come up. The dark sky is briefly illuminated by the glaring flashes of lightning, otherwise the sky is darkened and the rain is falling in torrents. The French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) captured this stormy atmosphere impressively in his painting. The artist takes the viewer deep into the jungle. There, startled by the thunderstorm, a tiger can be found ducking and seeking shelter among the dense forest. With his eyes wide open, his mouth slightly open and his stooped posture, the tiger seems more frightened than frightening.

It is more likely, however, that due to the artist's almost childlike painting style, the viewer gets the wrong impression. For - oh dear - the tiger is possibly hunting prey and this is outside the field of vision or the edge of the picture. For even when hunting, tigers assume a crouched posture, their body is also tense and they may be about to pounce on the victim. It is precisely this ambiguity that could have been the artist's intention and makes the picture all the more exciting. On the one hand, Henri Rousseau was sometimes ridiculed during his lifetime for his particular style of painting, but on the other hand he was appreciated by famous contemporaries such as Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso. He had no artistic training when he devoted himself entirely to painting from around the age of 40. Therefore, he was also called a "Sunday painter", i.e. an amateur painter who came from a different professional background and acquired painting techniques and his knowledge of art autodidactically. As a result, he lacked knowledge about perspective, for example, which makes his paintings seem less profound and three-dimensional. Nevertheless, Henri Rousseau is nowadays regarded as a pioneer of naïve art and his special technique is seen as a sign of his authentic way of depiction.

The painting itself is considered one of the first of around 20 jungle depictions. It has something exotic about it, although the ideas are imaginary because Rousseau himself probably never left France. He used indoor plants and plants from the botanical garden, the "Jardin des Plantes" in Paris, as models for the plants and trees. There were also exotic animal species there and so it is conceivable that these served him as models for the tiger depiction. He also took his cue from stuffed animals that were on display at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, among other places. His painting style looks as if the individual elements had been laid on top of each other in several layers. However, the tiger appears to have been added later, almost floating in the air. This could be due to the fact that Henri Rousseau used a so-called pantograph for his works. This is a mechanical precision instrument for superimposing drawings on the same, smaller or larger scale. He also depicts the rain in a peculiar way as a mixture of half transparent and half silver-grey stripes. It is most likely these different elements and the artist's very idiosyncratic way of painting that nevertheless always captivate the viewer.

Henri Rousseau - Surprised!

Oil on canvas, 1891, 129.8 x 161.9 cm, National Gallery, London


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