“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. He sought to explain his insertion of a musician and a reclining female nude into a moonlit jungle full of exotic foliage and wildlife. The setting was inspired by his visits to Paris’s Jardin des Plantes, a combined botanical garden and zoo. The self-taught painter was a crucial precedent for Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, who also relied on incongruous combinations and dream imagery to create mysterious, unforgettable pictures.
Gallery label from 2021
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."
Gallery label from 2011.
Entirely self-taught, Henri Rousseau worked a day job as a customs inspector until, around 1885, he retired on a tiny pension to pursue a career as an artist. Without leaving his native France, he made numerous paintings of fantastical jungle landscapes, like the one that fills The Dream.
Living in Paris, he had ready access to images of faraway people and places through popular literature, world expositions, museums, and the Paris Zoo. His visits to the city’s natural history museum and to Jardin des plantes (a combined zoo and botanical garden) inspired the lush jungle, wild animals, and mysterious horn player featured in The Dream. “When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream,” he once said.
The nude woman reclining on a sofa seems to have been lifted from a Paris living room and grafted into this moonlit jungle scene. Her incongruous presence heightens its dreamlike quality and suggests that perhaps the jungle is a projection of her mind, much as it is a projection of Rousseau’s imagination.