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Henri Rousseau and the tropical heart of darkness

Why you should care: A French dude by the name of Henri Rousseau (not to be confused with Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher) painted all these fascinating jungle scenes… except he never left France. What’s with that?

There was an impulse in the late 19thC/early 20C for European artists to envision faraway lands and to attribute certain spiritual qualities to the foreign flora and fauna. I think most of us can probably relate to imagining faraway places and constructing powerful narratives around them.

It’s worth our time when someone makes the resulting output so visually arresting. The paintings of H. Rousseau is witness NOT to what the actual jungle looks like, but the fertile imagination of an unusual Frenchman who influenced no less than the likes of Picasso and, as we see, Frida Kahlo. 




One of the first things I notice about Henri Rousseau is his plants. The colors and shapes of his characteristic landscapes conjure some hot faraway jungle. He supposedly spread rumors about spending time in Mexican expeditions, but in fact, he never did. All of the scientific evidence and imaginative inspiration for his wildlife came from  children’s books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of taxidermy wild animals. Indeed, it is not hard to see a children’s book-like lyricism in his paintings.

The green leaves of his trees and shrubs are always in claustrophobic layers. They are dense, impenetrable, nearly to the point of being menacing. Even in paintings set in seemingly unthreatening, urban settings, far from the exotic jungles, like one we see below, trees are incredibly thick and dark.



The Avenue in the Park at Saint Cloud


One running motif in his paintings is hidden scenes of predatory attack. Here is a leopard attacking a man, then another painting of a jaguar (?) tearing into his prey. Notice how the principal actors are hidden in the thickness of plant life, thoroughly isolated from any potential source of help. The victim might wail and screech, but no one will hear. The scene of animal savagery is incidental to the overpowering dimension, vitality and beauty of surrounding trees.

I have written about the cross-association of qualities related to plant and animal life in a novel, Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, in which the protagonist, in the grips of madness, sees trees as hulking beasts. In the review I wrote of the novel, I also invoked Baudelaire’ poetry in the Flowers of Evil, in which plants become sinister accessories to violence. In Rousseau’s paintings, too, the brilliant green of the jungle is complicit in killing. It shields the killer and masks the cry of the prey.

This is a delicious subversion of the romantic idea of nature, in which green life represents a kind of return to benevolent origin, pastoral peace, maternal warmth and healing. FASCINATINGLY ENOUGH, the other Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, was one of the most famous proponents of such a view of nature.

Mais Henri dit non!







To me, to debate the ecological correctness of Rousseau’s landscapes is totally besides the point. I don’t care that he has never seen anything tropical with his own eyes; in fact, I prefer the truth that he never left France. My impression is that he was after not scientific authenticity but capturing the qualities of mystique and risk associated with a notionally foreign terrain. His jungles are compelling insofar as they present a decadent, fantastical vision — fruit of the primacy of his imagination.

The tightness of the composition and lucidity of lines in his paintings bring to clear visual order the prehistoric murkiness lodged in our subconscious.

Consider now, against this visual backdrop, the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, whose life overlapped with Rousseau in France by about 4 decades;

(French original)

Quand, les deux yeux fermés, en un soir chaud d’automne,
Je respire l’odeur de ton sein chaleureux,
Je vois se dérouler des rivages heureux
Qu’éblouissent les feux d’un soleil monotone;
Une île paresseuse où la nature donne
Des arbres singuliers et des fruits savoureux;
Des hommes dont le corps est mince et vigoureux,
Et des femmes dont l’oeil par sa franchise étonne.

(Translation by Jacques LeClercq)

On autumn nights, eyes closed, when, sensuous,
I breathe the scent of your warm breasts, my sight
Is peopled by far shores, happy and bright,
Under a sun, warm and monotonous.
A lazy isle which nature, generous,
Stocks with weird trees and fruits of strange delight,
Men with lithe bodies, powerful but slight,
Women whose candid eyes flash luminous.

Hmmm, pretty poignant, right?




The marrying of tropical flora, fauna, brooding storybook figures and violence typical in Rousseau’s work invoke, to me, the art of Frida Kahlo. After I had this thought, I looked up their names together and was glad to see that, indeed, other art historians have drawn the line from Rousseau to Kahlo, who worked a few decades after him. Noted the irony of Kahlo, a fierce patriot, being influenced by a Frenchman who depicted Mexican nature without leaving Europe. Although of course, the Coyoacán-born Kahlo had greater legitimate claim to “authentic” Mexico, she was also characterized by immobility (due to lifeling, tragic ill health), which also gave her a unique and eclectic imagination that translated into a distinctive and mystical artistic vision.




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