Yadwigha, falling into sweet sleep,
heard in a lovely dream
the sounds of a musette
played by a kind enchanter.
While the moon shone
on the flowers, the verdant trees,
the wild snakes lent an ear
to the instrument’s gay airs.
*note both the image and poem are titled The Dream, and are by Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau’s final and arguably most famous painting, The Dream, represents the idea of the domestic, familiar world meeting the more domestic, animalistic and exotic world.
Rousseau painted this piece in the final year of his life, and following many years of criticism and ridicule for his previous artwork. It is often stated that The Dream was Rousseau’s best and most respected piece of work in his entire career. The piece features a white, very physically European and western seeming woman, lying naked on a typical Parisian looking sofa. Although the sofa is dark and does not artistically stand out from the bright colors and lighter images, logistically it jumps out at the viewer, for it is odd to see such a sophisticated piece of furniture in the middle of the exotic jungle.
Surrounding the woman, whom Rousseau calls Yadwigha, are brightly colored, tropical flowers and wild animals native to this foreign land. Despite the colors, animals, and plants seeming so new and unfamiliar, the westernized woman is lying comfortably, looking content and happy in her surroundings. She is placed in front of the group of animals and beasts, as if they are performing for her or catering to her. In the top right corner of the painting, we can see the sun, making it obvious where the natural light is coming from, an intentional style of modernist artists. The centralized animals and images are lighted by the sun, and we can clearly see them; however, the areas of the painting that are not illuminated are for the most part dark forests and trees, and the animals in them are more covered than the others. This further clarifies that this land is mysterious, foreign, and maybe even a little frightening.
The fact that Yadwigha is lying on such a European looking sofa, and the obvious title, allow for a clear interpretation of the whole scenario being a fantasy. This westernized woman is dreaming of being in this faraway world, which at this time, the early 20th century, was very erotic, new, and almost taboo. There is also a large sexual presence in the painting because it seems as though the jungle and the wild beasts are seducing this woman. I personally would even go so far to say that despite Yadwigha’s European looking facial features, it seems as though she has almost adopted a more animalistic look—her hair is down and mangy and her skin tone seems almost bronzed.
Rousseau merges the human and animal worlds into one, which is such a truthful representation of Modernism—he is expressing changing of relationships, even if it is with a different species. In this painting, it is clear that the human woman is interacting with these animals in a very intimate way. It should also be noted that before his death, Rousseau’s career was very unsuccessful at times, and he often struggled financially. He would have never traveled to a jungle or tropical land, meaning this interpretation is based off of stories from others, or gardens and zoos from France. Rousseau took his understood knowledge, and created his own vision—a blending of reality and imagination.
Rousseau uses personal experiences and familiar visions to create a new world of his own interpretation and fantasy.
Rousseau. The Dream. 1910. The Museum of Modern Art.