These are the 12 most famous paintings by Henri Rousseau, who was a self-taught artist who began painting seriously in his 40s. His unsentimental images drew the attention of art critics and his style still commands belittling adjectives such as “simple” or “naïve”. During his life, he something of a sensation within the Parisian art scene, and his works were celebrated and adored by many artists, such as Pablo Picasso.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891)
This is Rousseau’s first oil on canvas jungle painting and is one of the most famous paintings by Henri Rousseau. He depicts a tiger, illuminated by a flash of lightning. He is preparing to pounce on its prey during a raging gale. The tiger is derived from a motif found in the drawings and paintings of Eugène Delacroix (a French romantic artist).
His pray is beyond the edge of the canvas so it is left to the imagination of the viewer to decide what the outcome will be, although the original title of the painting Surprised! Suggests that the tiger was lucky.
The Dream (1910)
“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,” Rousseau wrote of this enigmatic painting. Like his other jungle vegetation and wildlife paintings, the setting in The Dream was inspired by his visits to the Paris’ Jardin des Plantes, which was, at the beginning of the 20th century, a combined botanical garden and a zoo.
The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905)
This painting features a jungle scene of thick green vegetation lit by a red-setting sun in its center. In the foreground, a lion bites deeply into the neck of an antelope while other animals are visible in the dense undergrowth (a panther, an owl, and an animal with an apelike shape). Rousseau based the central pair of animals on a diorama of stuffed animals at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
A Carnival Evening (1886)
This mysterious wintry landscape depicts a lone couple standing in front of barren trees. Their figures seem to shine from within rather than from the light of the moon, which has left the forest in darkness.
Self Portrait (1890)
This painting depicts the artist on a grand scale with brush and palette in hand and wearing a black suit and a traditional artist’s beret. He is standing before a landscape featuring the Eiffel Tower and a tall ship decorated with world flags. Another symbol of technological progress used to celebrate the city’s modernity included the, then-futuristic, hot air balloon.
Boy on the Rocks (1895–1897)
This naïve painting of a boy is oftentimes described as having “mysterious poetry” or “dreamlike force”.
The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)
La Bohémienne endormie is a depiction of a lion musing over a sleeping woman on a moonlit night in a desert. The artist himself, Rousseau, described this painting: “A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chance to pass by and picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”
The Merry Jesters (1906)
His best works are the imaginary jungle scenes inspired by illustrated books and the vegetation of botanical gardens in Paris. This painting shows a group of bearded monkeys and a tropical bird looking at the viewer as if a sudden noise has disturbed their play.
The Football Players (1908)
The Football Players depicts Rousseau’s quirky attempt to show modern times. To his credit, today, we still have no adequate explanation as to why he painted rugby players as pajama-clad twins.
The Repast of the Lion (1907)
Rousseau based the exotic vegetation of his multiple jungle oil on canvas paintings on studies that he made in Paris’s botanical gardens and added the wild cats from popular ethnographic journals and illustrated children’s books. The Repast of the Lion depicts a Lion eating a Crocodile in a jungle setting.
Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin (1909)
Guillaume Apollinaire was a French short story writer, poet, and art critic, credited with coining the term cubism. Marie Laurencin was also of French descent, and she was a painter, printmaker, and stage designer who painted delicate and elegant portraits of melancholic women.
The Equatorial Jungle (1909)
This oil on canvas painting titled The Equatorial Jungle demonstrates Rousseau’s passion for painting in a naïve or primitive manner. It was painted in 1909 a year before his death. The wilderness he depicted is fecund and sinister, and leaves and flowers are magnified, and the rhythmic beauty of the repeated leaf shapes is extraordinary.
What famous paintings by Henri Rousseau do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.