The Dream (Le Rêve) - Henry Rousseau 1910

The Dream - Henry Rousseau (1910)

Henri Rousseau's, The Dream is a beautiful, strange, and enigmatic painting. It depicts the dream of Yadwigha, thought to be a Polish woman with whom Rousseau had a relationship years before. Naked, she reclines on a red couch. Her arm outstretched in a regal manor. She recalls the nude of art history but she's clearly moving outside that tradition. Yadwigha is depicted on a couch or sofa, which is oddly situated in the midst of a jungle surrounded by exotic plants and animals. What is Yadwigha doing in a tropical jungle, and why does she point with her left hand across the top of the sofa towards the plants and animals? A musician playing a flute stands to the right of the centre of the composition. He or she is almost hidden in the foliage. Only the instrument and the player's striped clothing are clearly visible. In his 1910 review, Apollinaire, considered one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, wrote about this painting: “We find beauty that is indisputable. The painters, they are unanimous. They admire it, believe me, even that Louis Philippe sofa lost in the virgin forest, and they are right!”.

The Dream (detail)

Let's think then about sexuality and the erotic. Here we have a sexual image of a naked woman but is it erotic? 
The painting evoked feelings of fertility, pleasure and desire. The jungle is abundant with life, the plants are lush and the animals are strange and beautiful. The painting's not conventionally sexual but yes, it is erotic, gently erotic. Here we're using erotic to mean a combinational quality of things designed to arouse sexual desire. The erotic concerns the aesthetics of sexual desire and can be found in different art forms, particularly, in painting. In The Dream, the abundant, fertile vegetation, ripe fruit, the threat of animals and the suggestion of hidden depths, all of these combine to create an erotically charged, poetic appeal.

The Dream (detail)

When Rousseau exhibited the painting in 1910, the year he died, he also wrote a poem to accompany the painting to explain the jungle setting and strange juxtapositioning of objects:

Yadwigha dans un beau rêve
S'étant endormie doucement
Entendait les sons d'une musette
Dont jouait un charmeur bien pensant.
Pendant que la lune reflète
Sur les fleuves [or fleurs], les arbres verdoyants,
Les fauves serpents prêtent l'oreille
Aux airs gais de l'instrument.

(Yadwigha in a beautiful dream
Having fallen gently to sleep
Heard the sounds of a 
reed instrument

Played by a well-intentioned [snake] charmer.
As the moon reflected
On the rivers [or flowers], the verdant trees,
The wild snakes lend an ear
To the joyous tunes of the instrument)

The strange thing is that the poem speaks of a woman dreaming but in the painting, Yadwigha is actually not asleep. This is because we enter her dream directly. We see she's awake in her own dream. This puzzled Rousseau's contemporaries. He offered this explanation to the critic, Andre DuPont: “I am writing in response to your friendly letter to explain to you the reason the couch in question is where it is. The woman asleep on the couch is dreaming, she has been transported into the forest, listening to the sounds from the instrument of the enchanter. “
Thus, the woman is both having the dream, the dream we see on the canvas and is also present in the dream. She is, in fact, the author of her own dream.

The Dream (detail) 

This is also the couch that inspired the American poet Sylvia Plath to write a poem called “Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies”:

A Sestina for the Dounier

Yadwigha, the literalists once wondered how you
Came to be lying on this baroque couch
Upholstered in red velvet, under the eye
Of uncaged tigers and a tropical moon,
Set in intricate wilderness of green
Heart-shaped leaves, like catalpa leaves, and lillies

Of monstrous size, like no well-bred lilies
It seems teh consistent critics wanted you
To choose between your world of jungle green
And the fashionable monde of the red couch
With its prim bric-à-brac, without a moon
To turn you luminous, without the eye

Of tigers to be stilled by your dark eye
And body whiter than its frill of lilies:
They'd have had yellow silk screening the moon,
Leaves and lilies flattened to paper behind you
Or, at most, to a mille-fleurs tapestry. But the couch
Stood stubborn in it's jungle: red against green,

Red against fifty variants of green,
The couch glared out at the prosaic eye.
So Rousseau, to explain why the red couch
Persisted in the picture with the lilies,
Tigers, snakes, and the snakecharmer and you,
And birds of paradise, and the round moon,

Described how you fell dreaming at full of moon
On a red velvet couch within your green-
Tessellared boudoir. Hearing flutes, you
Dreamed yourself away in the moon's eye
To a beryl jungle, and dreamed that bright moon-lilies
Nodded their petaled heads around your couch.

And that, Rousseau told the critics, was why the couch
Accompanied you. So they nodded at the couch with the moon
And the snakecharmer's song and the gigantic lilies,
Marvelingly numbered the many shades of green.
But to a friend, in private, Rousseau confessed his eye
So possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you,

Yadwigha, pose on, that he put you on the couch
To feed his eye with red, such red! under the moon,
In the midst of all that green and those great lilies!

In this poem she takes Rousseau's critics with their prosaic eye to task for demanding an explanation as to why the naked woman sits on a couch in a forest. Yadwigha's dream is an excuse. Plath argues that it was the couch in the jungle that possessed Rousseau's imagination. Simply put, she says, he was consumed by the colour, the moon, and the lilies, Plath wrote.
But, to a friend in private, Rousseau confessed his eyes, so possessed by the glowing red of the couch which you, Yadwigha, pose on that he put you on a couch to feed his eye with red. Such red, under the moon, in the midst of all that green and those great lilies.

The Dream (detail)

The Dream raises so many questions which may have no answers:

Why is Yadwigha having such a strange dream? And what does the dream mean?
Why does she imagine herself naked?
Why does she place herself in an exotic jungle?
Why are the animals so companionable? Even the lions and serpents.
Who is the musician?
Why are dreams so important to us? 

Artists have always used their dreams and inner worlds as an inspiration for their art. At the turn of the 20th century, the period known as the fin de siècle, The Dream took on new meaning, particularly because of the influence of the ideas of Sigmund Freud and a group of emerging avant garde artists. Edvard Munch painted the dark side of the dream in his famous work of 1893, The Scream, which explores a sense of alienation and inner terror. In the early 20th century, Giorgio de Chirico, the famous Surrealist, he set his painting in strange dreamscapes that seemed to resist interpretation.
And Henri Rousseau, who had never had a painting lesson in his life, visited the tropical plants and animals of the “Jardin des Plantes” in Paris for the inspiration of his imaginary landscapes. He recreated his dreams and desires, much to the delight of his admirers, and members of the surrealist “avant garde”.

The Dream (detail)

The Dream (detail)

The topics of dreaming, sexuality, and desire were very much on everyone's lips. This was the new era of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud published his famous Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. It exerted a profound influence on the Surrealists in the 20s. Freud argued that we express our innermost desires in our art, dreams, and even in unconscious slips of the tongue. Everything we repress, he said, will return. Freud, we know, had his clients lay on how famous couch draped with a red Persian rug, so they would relax and talk more freely about their dreams and innermost desires. Perhaps, Rousseau's mysterious painting was inspired by this new turn of the century interest and desire, the couch and dreams. After all the dreamer is sitting on a red couch in an eerie, perhaps uncanny space, where the familiar is rendered unfamiliar as in The Dream.

Is The Dream perhaps a painting about Eve without Adam? Rousseau was clearly interested in the figure of Eve. In his picture entitled Eve of 1906-7, he depicted a woman that looks very much like Yadwigha and a serpent. Like Yadwigha, Eve has two long plaits or braids, she stands naked in a jungle and holds out her hand to a serpent coiled around a tree. The foliage and tree bearing fruit, oranges rather than apples, are also very similar in design and colour to those in The Dream. Here to, there is a sense of harmony in nature.

Eve - Henri Rousseau (1907)

In The Dream, Rousseau imagines the first woman, Eve, creating nature. She's located in a garden of paradise, a lush, entangled Darwinian jungle, which suggests the unconscious mind of the dreamer. There are many animals, two long sinuous snakes, an elephant almost hidden by foliage, two lions with puzzled expressions, monkeys, an exotic bird of paradise. Then there is a mysterious figure of the black musician, the piper. Is this Orpheus? In myth and legend, the musician Orpheus played such beautiful music, he tamed even the wild beasts of the jungle. Creating life, Yadwigha holds out her arm gesturing towards the jungle and its inhabitants. Her gesture reminds us of Adam's outstretched arm in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the Sistine ceiling. In Michelangelo's painting, God creates man. Here, in Rousseau's The Dream, a woman stretches out her arm and creates a tropical forest teeming with life, a Garden of Eden before the Fall. She's the original womb that gives forth life. Her naked form draws the eye but not because she's sexually objectified but rather, she's the source of creativity. There's no sense that Yadwigha is performing for a male gaze. She's an active female figure. Rousseau has not painted an idealised nude who is posing passively for a male viewer as in much traditional painting. Yadwigha is self-assured, peaceful and in harmony with life. Her body is erotic, rounded, voluptuous, but not sexualised in a gratuitous manner. Rousseau's painting is a waking dream. The woman, the tigers, the musician, all have their eyes wide open. They're active participants in Yadwigha's dream.

The dream (detail)

Why is the painting so captivating? If we look more closely, we can see the painting has a strange symmetry to its shapes and forms. At first, the jungle seems impenetrable but gradually, we make out the various shapes of the creatures hidden within its depths. The jungle itself seems to glow from within. Yadwigha and the orange snake are turned towards each other and the curve of the snake's body rhymes visually with the curve of her leg. Yadwigha's rounded breast echoes the roundness of the full moon. The musician and the lion, however, look out from the canvas facing the spectator. The hypnotic expression in the eyes of the lions suggests they, too, are under the spell of the piper. Perhaps, Rousseau intended the musician to refer to the black servant who often accompanied the female nude of classical painting. But in The Dream, the flute player is an active figure, not a servant. Again, Rousseau breaks with tradition.

The Dream (detail)

Some saw Rousseau as a primitive painter. He saw himself as a Modernist. Rousseau's paintings paid no attention to conventional ideas about photographic likeness, perspective, and depth. He created meaning through intricately designed flat planes of colour and distortions of scale. In their discussion of Rousseau's style, art historians, Caroline Launcher and William Rubin, point to his use of flattened space and an absence of the complex devices of illusionist lighting and perspective that characterise the official art of the day.
As a result, his work was ridiculed by conventional art critics. Rousseau found himself increasingly on the side of the avant garde, and mixing with avant garde artists such as Picasso. Who enthusiastically appreciated his work and understood he was also a Modernist and a forerunner of new approaches to art.

The Dream (detail)

In his focus on dreaming, Rousseau is certainly a forerunner to the Surrealist movement. Rousseau was befriended by Apollinaire, one of the most influential writers of the early 20th century, who in 1917, invented the term surrealism, meaning beyond realism. The Surrealists were fascinated by Freud's theories of sex, desire, and repression. To the surrealists, life was a mystery. Human beings imposed order and rationality where there was none. In the company of avant garde artists, Rousseau was influenced by the many new ideas inspired by the writings of Freud about the importance of sex, desire, dreaming, and the unconscious. Rousseau created an imaginary world of jungles, people and savage creatures who he envisioned in many paintings as living in harmony. Although Rousseau never left Paris, he was a regular visitor to the “Jardin des Plantes”, where he found inspiration from the vast array of exotic plants and animals. The “avant garde” were drawn to his surrealist vision, his unusual, juxtapositioning of objects and interesting dreams and desires. In discussing Rousseau, Andrea Breton, and Andre Masson, two leading surrealist artists, state of his work that beyond all the obstacles civilisation puts in the way, a mysterious second communication is still possible. Breton and Masson saw him as a repository of dreams and ancient desires.

(c) Prof. Barbara Creed, MOMA (NY)

Other painting from Henri Rousseau depicting jungle scenes:

Tropical Forest with Apes and Snake - Henri Rousseau (1910)

Apes in The Orange Grove - Henri Rousseau (1910)

Tiger Attacking a Bull (In a Tropical Forest) - Henri Rousseau (1909)

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (also Surprised!) - Henri Rousseau (1891)

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