Henri Rousseau 1844-1901
Sleeping Gypsy 1897
The Sleeping Gypsy or La Bohémienne Endormie is an 1897 oil painting by French Naïve or primitive school artist Henri Rousseau. The depiction of a lion looking over a sleeping woman on a moonlit night is one of the most easily recognizable artworks of all time.
Rousseau first exhibited the painting at the Salon des Indépendants. He tried unsuccessfully to sell Sleeping Gypsy to the mayor of his hometown. Fortunately, the painting entered the private collection of a Parisian charcoal merchant where it remained until 1924. It was re discovered by art critic Louis Vauxcelles.
The painting has served as inspiration for much the arts and music. It has been altered and parodied by artists with the lion replaced by a dog or another animal. In the 1999 Simpsons episode "Mom and Pop Art”, Homer Simpson dreams of waking up inside the painting with the lion licking his head. A print of the work also appears in the 1960 movie, The Apartment.
Rousseau is quoted as saying he had "no teacher other than nature". He was entirely self-taught and is considered to be a naïve or primitive painter. He retired from his job as a government employee at age 49 to become a full time painter.
His best paintings depict jungle scenes. Interestingly, Rousseau had never left France nor saw a jungle in his lifetime. His jungle inspiration came from books and the botanical gardens in Paris, and taxidermied wild animals. Henri met soldiers during his term of army service that had travelled on the French expedition to Mexico. Rousseau used their stories of the exotic tropical country they had encountered to inform his paintings.
This unique oil painting displays a woman asleep on the desert sand with a mandolin at her side and a walking stick in her hand. The lion standing behind her is curious, not wanting to wake her but entranced by her presence. The woman’s body position vulnerable, but her face is one of contentment. The contours and colors are dreamlike. The blue moon illuminates the night, and denotes peace and harmony between the two sometime warring subjects: animal and human. The scene is set in a desert. The black gypsy is dressed in oriental costume. Again these are details that Rousseau had never experienced and had to learn from outside sources. The Sleeping Gypsy is precise, its colors crystal clear, its lines, surfaces, and accents and deliberate.
Rousseau was painter whose work seemed gauche and unsophisticated to his early critics. His art however, employed modernist technique: the flattened shapes and overall perspectives, the varied tones color and the subordination of traditional classic realistic description to the imagination.
‘The Sleeping Gypsy’ by is at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.