Although Rousseau completed more than twenty-five jungle paintings in his career, he never traveled outside France. He instead drew on images of the exotic as it was presented to the urban dweller through popular literature, colonial expositions, and the Paris Zoo. The lush jungle, wild animals, and mysterious horn player featured in this work were inspired by Rousseau's visits to the city's natural history museum and Jardin des plantes (a combined zoo and botanical garden). Of his visits the artist said, "When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream." The nude model in this painting reclines on a sofa, mixing the domestic and the exotic.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Curator, Ann Temkin: The Dream was painted by Henri Rousseau in 1910. Rousseau was a curious figure in the early twentieth-century avant-garde. He was not trained as a painter and instead he was a self-taught artist whose day job was as a customs agent.
His work centered on exotic renditions of jungle scenes. And these are detailed with great precision in terms of the foliage, the animals, the entire jungle landscape.
Rousseau never left Paris. But, in fact, he got all of his knowledge for the horticultural details by going to the botanical gardens in Paris, by going to the zoos to look at the various birds and animals, by reading lots of magazines that came out at that time that were charting the sort of exotic places that travelers and explorers were just starting to go to on other continents.
He called it The Dream because obviously, there is this very strange situation of an upholstered sofa in the middle of the jungle on which this woman with her two braids sits naked staring out at the scene ahead of her. And one interpretation of that that the artist gave was that the woman was in fact, reclining on this sofa in some living room in Paris, and she was dreaming this jungle around her. But I think there are so many ways to think about this painting and that it's much more fun to leave it open in your mind as to how this lady on the sofa got into this jungle.