Rousseau and his Parisian contemporaries were fascinated by wandering gypsies, the Romany people known in France as bohémiens: men and women exiled to the fringes of society during the dramatic changes of the mid-nineteenth century. French writers and artists had historically linked the Romany to Egypt as well as Bohemia, which may explain Rousseau’s depiction of a dark-skinned woman sleeping calmly—despite the large lion sniffing at her shoulder—in an arid landscape. With its flat planes of pure color, simple geometric forms, dreamlike atmosphere, and exotic subject, The Sleeping Gypsy at once conjures a desire for a preindustrial past and asserts its status as a new kind of modern art; the details of the lion’s unnerving eye and the figure’s zipperlike teeth evidence the artist’s singular pictorial imagination.
Rousseau, a toll collector for the city of Paris (thus known also as Le Douanier), was largely self-taught, although he had grand ambitions of entering the Académie Française. Denied the official acceptance he craved, he later became a hero, although somewhat unwittingly, to the early-twentieth-century avant-garde painters, who claimed him as one of their own.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Without leaving Paris, Rousseau probably based elements of this desert landscape on direct observation: he made regular visits to the Jardin des Plantes—a botanical garden containing many plants and animals acquired during French colonial expeditions—and to the 1889 World’s Fair, where colonized people were exhibited in reconstructed native villages. These sources were reinforced by illustrations and adventure stories in popular magazines and novels. With its flat planes of pure color, dreamlike atmosphere, and exoticized subject, The Sleeping Gypsy at once conjures a desire for a preindustrial past and asserts its status as a new kind of modern art.
Gallery label from 2019
Rousseau, a toll collector for the city of Paris, was largely a self-taught painter, although he had ambitions of entering the Academy. This was never realized, but the sharp colors, fantastic imagery, and precise outlines in his work—derived from the style and subject matter of popular print culture—struck a chord with a younger generation of avant-garde painters. Rousseau described the subject of The Sleeping Gypsy thus: "A mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic."
Gallery label from 2012.