Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, Oil on canvas, 51 x 79 inches
Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy is a dream that will never wake up. A fairy tale of time, as in Eternity. Done in the style of post-impressionist, gothic regionalism, but like a cockeyed Egyptian painting, Rousseau’s Gypsy is a bust-out, an anachronism, a mystical misfit.
Seemingly grander than its 51 x 79 inches, the lion appears like a hallucination hovering over the somnolent gypsy and her accoutrements. His mane strangely blows forward on a windless night, while his eye appears as a mesmerizing orb that plays off the moon and mandolin. The vast sky makes a silent impact with its indigo hues that hint at the coming day. Wondrous patterns mimic and undulate in surreal poetry: his mane radiates towards her garments; her foot reaches out to his hind legs; the eternal waters glide behind them and in front of a flat, wind-swept backdrop of a desert. All of these sumptuous oddities keep me coming back to this painting, along with the glistening of the gypsy’s zipper-like teeth.
Rousseau once said to Picasso, “You and I are the two most important artists of the age – you in the Egyptian style, and I in the modern one.” He was ridiculed for that and other conceits, but I can’t help thinking that illusions help us all to continue. Rousseau was a self-taught outsider and inspired to paint like William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Wonderful that he never forced himself into the framework of academia. His fantastical visions may have been a fool’s paradise but what a grand one it was: a tiger running through the rain in a tropical forest, a lion devouring a leopard among impossibly outsized lotuses and banana trees, serpents slithering out of lushness toward the ancient calls of a snake charmer.
Rousseau never left France, which may have secured his singular vision. He was outspoken about working with disparate source material to create unified worlds of his own making. Illustrations from children’s books and department stores helped create his impossible and enchanted beasts. Sketches of plants at Paris’ botanical gardens galvanized his terrain.
Twenty-four of his twenty-five jungle mashups were painted at the end of his life as if his quote “Beauty is the promise of happiness,” became the impetus for his grand finale, his trip down the rabbit hole, his adventure towards the unconditionally exotic. To me, Rousseau’s savagery in these last Edens was powerful yet delicate, simple and pure as a tune.
Suzanne Unrein, Salvage, 2019, Oil on canvas, 79 x 69 inches