The Sleeping Gypsy
Henri Rousseau
Oil on canvas

A young gypsy, decked out in a striped dress of many colors, sleeps in the sand of a desert. Her mandolin lies by her side. She keeps one hand tucked in her dress for warmth, and clutches a walking stick in the other.

She wears an expression of utter contentment.

Meanwhile, a lion stands above her, his mouth right by her shoulder--But despite this he seems to be completely unthreatening. His tail points up at an angle, and his eye...I've heard it described as being transfixed, or hypnotic. I think it has that vacant expression most clearly seen in the eyes of a stuffed animal.

In the upper right corner lies the moon. And if you look at it carefully, you'll see it seems to have a face, and it's smiling.

When I first looked at The Sleeping Gypsy, my first thought was that it reminded me of an old children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. It was only after studying it further that I realized how apt that comparison was: both embody a perfect image of childhood fantasy, with its strange mix of violence and innocence.

Despite its very simple appearance, there is much that is not quite right with this painting (including the smiling moon):

  • The lion's hair is meticulously drawn strand by strand, but it grows the wrong way. Rather than starting at the head and flowing backward, its roots lie way back by the the forepaws.
  • The setting of this painting is both everywhere and nowhere. She sleeps in a desert, but right behind her, the ocean (a river?) can be seen, and behind that, a mountain range.
  • Lying by the gypsy is a water jug and a mandolin, but that is all. Why does she carry water but not food? How did she travel such long way without it, in an area clearly devoid of life? And why, instead of bringing food, does she bring a mandolin, of all things? Why is she so content?

This painting is a fantasy. All these inconsistencies point to the fact that it is not meant to be real, that it is a dream. In this setting, the lion, known as the king of the jungle, a predator among predators, exists as an abstraction of danger. But, just as in a child's mind, it adds only a flair of excitement and mystery, not fear. He seems just as curious of the gypsy as we are of him.

I cannot explain the wonder and happiness I feel when I see this painting. I can only say that for a work of art to move someone like me, a lunkhead who usually just doesn't get it, is an accomplishment indeed.

Check it out for yourself:

Pseudo_Intellectual says re The Sleeping Gypsy : It would be perhaps worth mentioning that Rousseau's fantastic elements were not always so intentional as an innocent result of the fact that he drew much of his source material from catalogues and grainy print reproductions of photographs. Not actually having seen a real lion, he probably had worked out that that's how its' mane worked. Similarly the jungle vegetation present in his other paintings were what happened to be flourishing in Paris greenhouses.

arrogantsob remains unconvinced.

A little from
Mostly just my own interpretations, based on some memories of an art history class taken quite a while ago.

    "The feline, though ferocious,
    hesitates to pounce upon its prey,
    who, overcome by fatigue,
    lies in a deep sleep."

    Written by Rousseau on the frame of the painting.
The mind's eye of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) occupied a different but equally powerful world of personal fantasy. Gauguin had journeyed to the South Seas in search of primitive innocence; Rousseau was a primitive without leaving Paris – an untrained amateur painter who held a post as a customs collector hence the sobriquet, le douanier meaning The Customs Man.
    From his stations at the toll gates at the Auteuil Embankment and the Vanves Gate, Rousseau observed the world around him and filled numerous notebooks with drawings. He noted that "my superiors at the tollgate used to assign me to less demanding duties so that I would find it easier to work." At age forty-nine, Rousseau retired from the customs service to become a full-time artist. He settled in the Plaisance section of Paris a poor working-class neighborhood behind Montparnasse. Here he found a one-room studio where he was surrounded by his art.
Rousseau produced an art of dream and fantasy in a style that had known sophistication and made its singular departure from the artistic currency of the fin de siècle. A natural talent for design and an imagination teeming with exotic imagery of baffling, tropical landscapes is an apt compensation for his evident visual, abstract and technical naïveté. In perhaps his most popular work The Sleeping Gypsy, a desert terrain, silent and secret, dreams beneath a pale perfectly round moon. In the foreground, a lion that looks like a stuffed but somehow ominous animal doll sniffs at the gypsy. An important encounter impends, one that is not possible for most of us in the waking world but is all too common when our vulnerable, subconscious selves are menaced in uneasy sleep. Rousseau emulated the landscape of the subconscious, and many regard him as the forerunner of the twentieth century Surrealists, who would try to symbolize indistinctness and opposition of dreaming and waking experiences taken together.
    Rousseau was an artist from an earlier era: he died in 1910, long before the Surrealist painters championed his art. Pablo Picasso, half-ironically, brought Rousseau to the attention of the art world with a dinner in his honor in 1908: an attention to which Rousseau thought himself fully entitled. Although Rousseau's greatest wish was to paint in an academic style, and he believed that the pictures he painted were absolutely real and convincing, the art world loved his intense stylization, direct vision, and fantastical images.
And indeed as discussed in the previous write up many of the ideas for his work came from illustrations, photos, and graphics he came across in printed materials.
    Such whole confidence in himself as an artist enabled Rousseau to take ordinary book and catalogue illustrations and turn each one into a piece of genuine art: his jungle paintings, for instance, were not the product of any first-hand experience and his major source for the exotic plant life that filled these strange canvases was actually the tropical plant house in Paris.

For years Rousseau's art was mocked and called "simple minded" however in 1886 he exhibited his work at the Salon des Refusés garnering the admiration of such contemporaries as Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. He wrote: "Nothing makes me happier than to contemplate nature and to paint it. Would you believe it that when I go out in the country and see all that sun, all that greenery and all those flowers, I sometimes say to myself: 'All that belongs to me, it does.'"

As Goya proved earlier, in his horrifying Saturn Devouring His Children and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, both fantastic representations of human depravity and decadence which can be revealed when imagination turns a critical eye towards society. Painted in 1897 The Sleeping Gypsy is an oil on canvas measuring 51" x 6'7" (129.5 x 200.7 cm) and currently resides at The Museum of Modern Art in New York as a gift from Nelson A. Rockefeller. Even in the face of dazzling disparity, exaggeration, and ordinariness, the painting possesses mysterious poetry. Wanting to preserve the isolation of the child with his simplified forms a gypsy woman lies sleeping in a wonderfully colored dress, a lion with his tail in the air, examines her curiously while the button-eye looks intently at the observer prompting many to ask, What does Rousseau's lion want with me?

Some experts relate that Rousseau would sing in a loud voice to keep up his courage when painting startling vistas of wild animals. As he worked he became a part of the make-believe world he produced. Poet and friend Apollinaire, recounted that Rousseau ‘sometimes got so scared he began to tremble and had to rush to the window for air.‘ Only a childlike artist with a simple, naïve vision can understand this elevation and make others see it as dauntingly true.

A mild yet wonderfully self-confident man, Rousseau held a deep conviction with regards to the spiritual world. He once asked some visitors who were watching him paint, "Did you notice how my hand was moving?"
"Of course," they said, "you were painting."
"No, no," he answered, "not I. It was my dead wife who guided my hand. Didn't you see her or hear her? 'Keep at it, Henri,' she whispered. 'It's going to come out right in the end.'"

After painting portraits and Parisian scenes, during the 1890’s he turned to the highly original depictions of fantasy. These mature pictures are typically composed of tropical scenes with human figures at rest or play and with beasts mysteriously charmed to an alert stillness. The French self-taught artist who’s bold colors, flat designs and imaginative subject matter were praised and imitated by modern European artists. Rousseau described paintings that had a classic, timeless quality "Egyptian-style." And on one occasion told Picasso, "We are the two great painters of the age, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern style."

Today his work it is admired for its simplicity and power. His paintings inspired later artists to create surreal and dreamlike images. Not easily classified into any definitive artistic style of the time—impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism or cubism—Rousseau’s efforts are considered a forerunner of surrealism because of its dream-like sensibility and The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, painted over thirty years later, has a dreamlike quality much like Rousseau's bridging the transition from realistic and academic art of the nineteenth-century to the modernist directions of the twentieth century.


Art of the Fantastic:

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Masada," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

The Imaginary World of Henri Rousseau:

The Van Gogh & Friends Art Game:

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.