News Category: Arts & Poetry
written by Kanchan Naik, a News Team Contributor
Henri Rousseau, one of the most influential artists in the 19th century, displays his enigmatic style in his oil painting, The Sleeping Gypsy. He was a Frenchman and a Post-Impressionist painter, who lived from 1844 to 1910. Created in 1897, which was the time when Rousseau created his best art, The Sleeping Gypsy shows off the artist’s ability to use vibrant colors over a dark, ebony background.
This painting depicts a lion staring at a sleeping woman at night. The background is most likely some sort of beach, due to the sandy ground and the blue water in the distance. A large moon glitters high in the midnight blue sky, illuminating the sand below. In the center lies a sleeping, dark-skinned woman, clutching a stick in her hand with a mandolin and a jar by her side. Her striped dress has the colors of the rainbow, which contrasts with the browns and blues of the landscape. Meanwhile, a lion is arched above her, simply gazing at her sleeping form with wide eyes and a raised tail. His closed mouth is barely inches away from her head. Perhaps the most interesting and meaningful aspect of the painting is the expression on the lion’s face. It is not one of a ravenous predator that is ready to devour the lady before him. Instead, the lion seems to be curious, almost affectionate towards the gypsy woman. Rather than harming her, the creature simply looks as if he is admiring her covertly.
The Sleeping Gypsy was originally created in Rousseau’s hometown, Laval, France. He first attempted to sell it to the mayor of Laval, and was unsuccessful. The artwork was then placed in a charcoal merchant’s private collection, until art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler bought the painting in 1924. While critics seemed to appreciate Rousseau’s sharp color choice and great imagery, the general public thought that the painting was bohemian and far too unsophisticated. It took many years before people respected and liked the work.
Upon releasing his art to the public, Henri Rousseau described the story behind the painting to be, “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.” Viewers from all over the world made their own inferences about the extraordinary artwork. According to the Museum of Modern Art, “As a musician, the gypsy in this painting … has no clear social place. Lost in …. deep, dreaming sleep, she is dangerously vulnerable—yet the lion is calmed and entranced.” Some agree with Rousseau and believe that the lion is a peaceful figure, while others surmise that the lion represents some towering source of authority in everyday life.
Henri Rousseau’s style of painting is unique as well as appealing. Since Rousseau was a self-taught artist, the way he depicted scenes in his works were slightly different from the techniques of those who had studied art at the Academy. He used flat shapes and perspectives, rather than three-dimensional objects to give the art a bit of a modern touch. Rousseau also utilized patterns from many different cultures in order to add variety and diversity in The Sleeping Gypsy. For example, the gypsy woman was actually dressed in an Oriental costume, while the instrument beside her was the Italian mandolin. He chose dusky colors for the dark background; however, the hues selected for the gypsy woman’s dress were vibrant, drawing attention to her.
Although the illustration is fantastic and slightly whimsical, it is highly possible that the artist was trying to make a point about social and economic issues through his art. For example, the lion could represent societal pressures and how they dominate ordinary people, while the gypsy could portray a person oblivious to the power such pressures hold over her. The stick in her hand might show how she really does have the ability to take the upper hand and fight such intimidations, but she does not use it because she is unaware of her situation. Personally, I believe this painting could have a very different meaning. The lion might possibly represent some sort of minority group. Below him is the gypsy, who could portray ignorance and unacceptance of people of a different race, religion, or culture. Hence, the woman is sleeping and unknowing of how the ‘lion’ is actually peaceful instead of dangerous. Infact, the stripes on her dress, in her hair, and on her mat would then represent the boundaries made to divide people. She might be holding a stick to show her fear of unfamiliar people.
Currently, The Sleeping Gypsy is in the care of the Museum of Modern Art. Art historian Alfred Barr obtained it for the museum in 1999. Since then, people have flocked to see the painting, among hundreds of others, in the Museum of Modern Art.
Indeed, The Sleeping Gypsy is a mysterious piece of art which catches the eye and interests the viewer. This mixture of contemporary style and old-fashioned subjects tells a story which changes from eye to eye, person to person. It remains as one of Henri Rousseau’s most renowned pieces, and one of the highlights of the Museum of Modern Art.
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