Why Is This Woman in the Jungle?
Artist Henri Rousseau painted The Dream in 1910, and its imagery of a woman lounging on a sofa in the middle of a jungle was as surreal then as it is today. What is it about this artwork that captivated audiences then and now?
I’m guessing you’ve seen this painting before.
Or one of the other very recognizable jungle paintings created by French artist Henri Rousseau.
Maybe it just crosses your register as “art,” as odd as any other picture you pass in a
museum or pack of postcards.
But I’d like us to pause for a moment to consider its strangeness.
Why is this naked woman reclining calmly on a sofa in the middle of a jungle, while lions
and a snake roam close by, and a musician emerges from its depths?
What is it that’s so peculiar about this image that captivated audiences in 1910 and
still compels us today?
Let's Better Know: Henri Rousseau’s The Dream
Rousseau wasn’t trying to play tricks on anybody.
When he first displayed the work at the spring 1910 Salon des Indépendants in Paris, he
titled it simply The Dream and accompanied it with a poem that goes:
Having fallen into a gentle sleep Yadwigha, in a dream
Heard the sound of a musette Played by a benevolent musician.
While the moon shone down Upon the flowers, the green trees,
The wild serpents listened to The instrument’s merry tunes.
So there you go.
She’s dreaming, you see.
Her name is Yadwigha, and while she may be asleep on the sofa in the waking world, in
dreamland she’s alert, pointing our way into the scene with her sharp features and
gaze, as well as her outstretched finger.
She directs us to notice the wide-eyed lion and lioness, and the brightly-skirted musician
who peers out of the darkness while playing a musette and charming the snake in the lower right.
At first the snake looks like it’s solid orange and slithering away, but then we notice
its eye, just barely discernible, and that it’s top side is black and underbelly bright orange.
Another eye peeks out of the jungle, this one belonging to what we make out to be an
And two birds perch in the trees, one with extravagant plumage.
We’re surrounded by a cacophony of repeating forms.
Each leaf of each plant is clearly defined, and lotus-like flowers, impossibly large,
sprout across the canvas.
We have a repetition of eyes that stare back at us, and also orbs.
Not just hers, but the oranges in the tree above, and of course the full moon in the
The Dream is jam packed with visual information to process, and we haven’t even mentioned
the three little monkeys also perched in the trees, or the banana bunches here and there.
Or how the echoing lines of the foliage generate a kind of vibrating rhythm.
It’s a dense composition--every square inch considered--and it’s a balanced and cohesive
one, too, even drawing comparison to such masterworks at Botticelli's Primavera.
But its maker, for almost all of his career, was thought of as kind of a joke, and openly
mocked as an utterly unschooled outsider.
During his life he was known as “Le Douanier,” French for customs officer, because of his
more than twenty year career collecting tolls on goods and produce entering the city of Paris.
His actual job wasn’t as high powered as the nickname suggests, but it did leave him
enough time to paint.
He began exhibiting in the mid 1880s and resigned his post in 1893, at age forty-nine, to devote
himself fully to his art.
He had a pension and gave art and music lessons.
But even living modestly, he was always short on funds.
Rousseau lost two wives and several children to illness, and himself died at the age of
sixty-six due to an untreated leg infection, with only one daughter surviving him, and
just months after completing The Dream.
There are many aspects of this painting that would not have been a surprise for art-going
audiences of early 20th Century Paris.
They’d seen plenty of nudes lounging on sofas before.
Manet’s Olympia was still in recent memory, and before that, there’d been Ingres.
And before that there’d been Titian.
And before Titian there’d been Giorgione.
But Rousseau’s figure, while acknowledging this lineage, sets herself apart by her firm
Yadwigha is strong, not soft.
A Polish variant of Hedwig, she’s possibly named after an early love interest of Rousseau’s.
But she’s rather unlike fleshy, naturalistic bodies of his predecessors, with her oddly
tubular fingers and toes.
Those nudes were built up gradually with layers of thin glazes, techniques championed by the
French Academy and their École des Beaux-Arts, which Rousseau did not attend.
He was self-taught, his education derived from looking.
He obtained a license that allowed him to copy artworks at the Louvre and the Musée
And while he would never achieve the highly finished effects of the works he attempted
to reproduce, Rousseau evolved his own distinctive manner of painting.
And he wasn’t the only one experimenting with more inventive, less naturalistic renderings
of bodies and everything else.
Modernism was all around.
Many were shirking the Academy’s values and presenting their own propositions for
what art could and should be.
Rousseau was both of the Modernists and not--he was always seen as inferior, an amusing amateur.
His first real attention came in 1886 with Carnival Evening, displayed at the same exhibition
as Seurat’s famous Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Both works caused a stir, Seurat’s for its innovative pointillist technique and scientific
mastery of color, and Rousseau’s for its playful innocence, and seeming obliviousness
to the conventions of perspective and modeling.
Attracting both mockery and admiration, Rousseau slowly grew a base of support as he showed
his work, counting many younger artists among his fans, who prized what they saw as his
directness and originality.
The first of his jungle paintings appeared in 1891, but the bulk of them came later,
after the success of his Hungry Lion at the 1905 Salon d’Automne.
It was there that a handful of artists using wild colors were dubbed by critics “les
fauves” or “the wild beasts,” and spurred the movement they called Fauvism.
Rousseau wasn’t one of them, but the proximity of his literal depiction of wild beasts might
have helped inspire the naming.
His work was unlike the Fauves, aspiring to more lifelike coloration and representation.
And his subject matter wasn’t that far afield historically--French great Eugene Delacroix
had gained much acclaim for his depictions of fierce animals.
Rousseau’s work can certainly be seen as part of the late nineteenth and early 20th
century Romantic interest in all things far flung and lesser known.
While some artists had indeed traveled to the places they described, plenty worked from
source material or used their imagination to concoct their scenes.
While Rousseau sometimes claimed he’d been to Mexico during his military service, the
truth was that he’d never ventured much farther than Paris and its environs.
He did travel virtually however, in large part thanks to the 1889 Paris World’s Fair,
which brought new zoology galleries to the museum of natural history, including both
live and taxidermied animal displays.
Rousseau worked from photographs and illustrations of animals, sometimes using an enlarger called
a pantograph to trace subjects from books and magazines.
And the city’s magnificent Jardin des Plantes provided him plenty of inspiration for botanical life.
Still, Rousseau took many liberties with his subjects, setting his flora and fauna at whatever
scale seemed to suit his purposes.
The space of his pictures is often flat, disregarding linear perspective or adjusting it as needed.
The light often comes from several sources, contributing to the eerie ambiguity of time
of day in works like The Dream.
Some of his compositions are simplistic, and others densely complex, filled with tightly
interlocking forms, each clearly defined, “as if he paints in a language of nouns,”
in the words of artist and author Craig McDaniel.
The art world of Paris called his work “primitive” and “naive,” partly due to what seemed
like exotic subject matter, but mostly because of his non-academic style of painting.
Those were terms they also used to describe large swathes of creative production from
outside of Europe, and also pre- or early Italian Renaissance art, to which Rousseau’s
work was sometimes compared.
But whatever it was he was doing, people were starting to like it, and he wasn’t going
to shift course now.
He’d befriended influential poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and was the honored
guest of a banquet hosted by Picasso in 1908, attended by the likes of Gertrude Stein.
Robert Delaunay and Max Weber collected his work, as did famed dealer Ambroise Vollard.
Rousseau once remarked in a letter:
“...if I have preserved my naïveté, it is because M. Gérôme, who was a professor
at the Beaux-Arts, as well as M. Clément, director of Beaux-Arts at the Ecole de Lyon,
urged me never to lose it.
The time will come when you will no longer think this strange.
I have been told that my work is not of this century … I cannot now change my manner
which I have acquired as the result of obstinate toil.”
And thank Yadwigha for his obstinate toil.
He remained ever true to his vision and fully dedicated to his work, despite hardship and
He was the butt of practical jokes concocted by the often patronizing artists he considered
friends, but remained good natured and amiable.
He was also a violinist and composer, and liked to entertain guests in his studio.
When he died rather suddenly, authorities buried him in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
But this was rectified once discovered--his friends raised money for a proper burial,
with a tombstone made by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi and an epitaph by Apollinaire.
His influence and renown only grew, as younger artists emulated him, and exhibitions and
writing about him spread.
The Surrealists loved him, of course, preoccupied as they were with dreams and the uncanny.
Their leader André Breton called The Dream a masterpiece that “comprehends all the
poetry, and with it, all the mysterious gestations of our time.”
It was eventually collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it has remained
a highlight of the permanent collection.
By the way, did we mention that this painting is huge?
Nearly seven by ten feet!
And it’s been the subject of poems, too, by Michael Ondaatje in 1974, and before that
by Sylvia Plath, who concluded her 1958 Sestina for the Douanier with an additional explanation
for our lounging lady in the jungle:
But to a friend, in private, Rousseau confessed his eye
So possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you,
Yadwigha, pose on, that he put you on the couch
To feed his eye with red, such red! under the moon,
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!
For we are enchanted by Rousseau’s Dream just as the jungle creatures are enchanted
by the musician’s tune.
We are transported into this world, just as the woman on the couch is carried off to this
This happens in part because of Rousseau’s gifts as a colorist, and the luminosity that
emanates from each and every vibrant form and coalesces into a mesmerizing, unified
It also happens because of that particular, undefinable Rousseau magic.
The artist once opined: “If my parents had recognised my gift for painting… today I
would have been the greatest and wealthiest painter in France.”
While this may have been true, with academic finish and training Rousseau would not have
become a Modernist hero.
He might not have found that Rousseau magic, that peculiar and distinctive voice.
Yadwigha is in the jungle because Rousseau wanted her there, and he wanted to take us
along with her.
He had confidence in his vision, and the commitment to see it through.
The results as we can still see are extraordinary, truly extra-ordinary.
And we can follow Yadwigha into this dream world whenever we like, and revel for a bit