Verbal Descriptions

Henri Rousseau. The Dream. 1910 77

Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/2" x 9' 9 1/2" (204.5 x 298.5 cm). Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller

Narrator: The artist Henri Rousseau painted The Dream in 1910, using oil paint on canvas. The work measures about 7 feet high and 10 feet wide. In metric units, it is about 205 centimeters high and 299 centimeters wide.

This painting depicts a lush, green jungle scene with plants, fruit trees, flowers, animals, birds, and two human figures. They are all painted with clean lines and crisp brushwork. Gradations in color give the appearance of a uniform light, softly illuminating the subjects.

Let’s begin by describing the jungle that serves as the setting for this painting’s scene.

A variety of leafy plants crowd the lower third of the painting cropped by the bottom edge of the canvas. Their stylized leaves and fronds are rendered in rich shades of green, ranging from emerald to deep olive, with yellow and purple details.

Across the midsection of the canvas, large lotus flowers in shades of blue, periwinkle, and peach are supported by tall thin stems.

The upper half of the painting features a dense thicket of tropical trees, including one bearing orange fruit at the center. Several bunches of yellow-green bananas hang from trees scattered throughout the right half of the picture.

And toward the top of the painting, glimpses of the pale blue sky peek through tree leaves and branches. Near the upper right corner, a luminous full moon hangs just above the tree line.

Now we’ll examine the figures and animals that populate this jungle scene.

Most prominently, left of center, a nude woman reclines on a deep crimson sofa. Her skin is rendered in pale golden flesh tones, and she has a rosy pink face. She props herself up on the sofa with her right arm and rests her left arm along the wooden frame lining the top of the sofa. Her legs stretch along the seat’s length, and her feet are crossed at the ankle.

Her curvaceous body turns toward us while her head is in profile, looking off to our right. Her dark brown hair is long, with two twists falling in front of her right breast. The rest cascades behind and beneath her.

Several animals peer out through the foliage. Two colorful birds perch in the trees and three small brown monkeys hang from branches. Behind the sofa, set back in the shadowy distance, a gray elephant in profile peeks out with one eye, while raising its trunk.

To the right of the sofa, a golden-brown lion and lioness loom amidst the foliage. They stare straight ahead with round, wild-looking, yellow eyes. The lion is further toward the right, while the lioness is slightly behind the male. She appears to be looking at the reclining woman. A black snake with a peach-pink underbelly lifts its head above the plants in the lower right corner of the canvas.

One more figure populates this scene. Set back between the lions, a dark, human figure stands, playing a straight golden horn. They hold the horn with both hands directly in front of their chest. The figure has dark gray-black skin and straight brown hair, and is camouflaged somewhat by the shadowy foliage that surrounds them. They wear a skirt with bands of blue, red, copper, ochre, and gray, and gaze directly at us.

Now let's hear more about this work from a curator.

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.

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