Henri Rousseau's Last Painting / by Chris Hall

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

"It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between."  Diane Ackerman

Henri Rousseau finished The Dream in 1910.  It was one of his more than 25 jungle themed paintings.  But this one is different.  This one features a nude figure reclining on a divan.  The figure is meant to represent his first wife, Clemence, who died of tuberculosis in 1888, at the young age of 37.  According to his daughter, Julia, Rousseau was sometimes guided by the ghost of Clemence in his paintings.  The Dream depicts Clemence as she wakes into a dream after falling asleep on the red divan, which Rousseau kept in his studio.  She finds herself in a lush jungle landscape, dense with green foliage and lotus flowers.  Hidden in the dim, moonlit jungle she observes birds, monkeys, an elephant, a lion and lioness, a snake, and a snake charmer.  Her arm reaches out to the lions, while the snake charmer plays on a flute.  The snake's sinuous form reflects the curves of her hips and leg, as it slithers through the undergrowth.  

The Dream would be Rousseau's last work.  I can not help but to wonder what Rousseau was thinking at this point in his life.  He was an old man, his art unappreciated, except for a few young and up and coming avant-garde artists.  He had also buried two wives and six children, who he had loved dearly.  And now he had only a few months to live.  What did he think his legacy would be?  Was he at all hopeful?  Was he sad?  Did he think himself a failure?  Did he think his own life was a dream, and that he would wake up next to his beloved Clemence?

All of Rousseau's earlier work had been received negatively in the press.  He was frequently ridiculed, and was considered somewhat of a joke by mainstream critics.  But when the poet Guillaume Apollinaire saw The Dream, he said “The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable.  I believe nobody will laugh this year.”  One of the few up and coming avant-garde artists who appreciated Rousseau's work, who saw past the bad press, was the young Pablo Picasso.  There would be a future for Rousseau's work.  Henri Rousseau died on September 2nd, 1910.