Henri Rousseau (1844–1910): Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, oil on

Henri Rousseau (1844–1910): Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, oil on

1/16/2021, 4:26:36 PM
Henri Rousseau (1844–1910): Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, oil on canvas, 129,5 × 200,7 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York Henri Rousseau was a French post-impressionist painter in the Primitive manner. Known as le Douanier (customs officer) in reference to his regular employment, as he was not a trained artist, Rousseau came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality. He was encouraged by professional artists in the 1880s to exhibit his work in the annual Salons. Later his work was admired by Picasso and the Surrealists. 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 in his present painting, sleeping calmly—despite the large lion sniffing at her shoulder—in an arid landscape under a bright moon. The woman is wearing an oriental costume and a mandolin and water jug rest beside her. The dress and instrument were objects important to their respective cultures. Thus, Rousseau has mixed several cultures into this painting. The lion has stumbled upon the woman. He is not aggressive, merely curious as he smells her. Rousseau describes the painting's subject in one of his letters: "A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her, 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. The scene is set in a completely arid desert. The gypsy is dressed in oriental costume." With its flat planes of pure colour, 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. (MoMA)

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