Oil on canvas painting The Dream was created by Henri Rousseau in 1910 and is one of over 25 Rousseau works with an exotic theme. The largest of the jungle paintings, The Dream features an almost surreal portrait of Yadwigha, Rousseau’s Polish mistress from his youth, reclining naked on a sofa to the left of the painting.
The young lady has been transported into a forest where a native musician playing a brass instrument serenades her. Gazing over a landscape of lush, jungle foliage, which includes lotus blossoms, birds, monkeys, an elephant, a lion and a lioness and a snake, Yadwigha reaches towards the piper, partially cloaked in the darkness of the jungle. The snake entering the scene at the lower right corner of the painting suggests a Garden of Eden theme. A pink serpent slithers through the undergrowth, its sinuous form echoing the curves of the woman’s legs and hips.
The nude model in this painting reclines on a sofa, mixing the domestic and the exotic. With its incredible attention to detail, vibrant palette, and absurdist combination of imagery, The Dream reveals why Rousseau’s art was so admired by the Surrealists. At least 22 shades of green were deployed to paint the jungle foliage. The painting captivated the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire. He enthused “The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year.”
This painting is obviously a dream because of the banality of the subject matter – a woman lying naked on a sofa in the tropics. Ambiguity however surrounds whether the painting portrays Yadwigha’s dream or Rousseau’s. That said, much of the fun of the painting is that it’s very much open to interpretation. The lush jungle, wild animals and shadowy horn player featured in this work were inspired by Rousseau’s visits to Paris’s natural history museum and the Jardin des Plantes. Of his visits the artist exclaimed, "When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream."
Henri Rousseau was aware that many would not understand the meaning of The Dream when it was first exhibited in mid 1910. As such, he took the unusual decision to actually include a poem alongside the piece upon its unveiling:
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.
What is the Style of The Dream?
Henri Rousseau was a particularly unique artist, partly due to his background in being entirely self-taught. His work, including The Dream, have been categorised within the art movements of Post-Impressionism, Naïve art and Primitivism, with the last two being perhaps the most accurate way in which to summarise his artistic style. Life in the jungle, as captured in 25 different Rousseau paintings, can certainly be classified within the Primitivism style though he also addressed other content across other parts of his career, such as French landscapes and cityscapes.
What was the Original French name of this Painting?
Henri Rousseau gave this painting the original French title of Le Rêve, which translates as The Dream. Other European artists have used the same title for some of their own paintings, such as Pablo Picasso - despite being Spanish, he would use French names for a number of artworks whilst living in France for much of his life. His interpretation of Le Rêve was a Cubist/Fauvist portrait. Recent research has uncovered alternative used by Rousseau for this painting, such as Le Songe and Rêve exotique), although most in France continue to use the term Le Rêve.
Where can the Painting by Found Today?
The Dream can now be found at the The Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA. It remains one of their most popular items, thanks to the incredible connection that Rousseau shares with the wider public, thanks to the accessible and fun nature of his work. It was particularly his jungle paintings that attracted a considerable following ever since he put them together back in the early 20th century. The painting is believed to have been gifted to the institution as a Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was a famous and respected art collector. Despite the large and broad collection found at MoMA, this painting continues to be afforded a prominent display position, such is its popularity with the public.
When did Henri Rousseau Paint The Dream?
The Dream was painted by Henri Rousseau in 1910. He exhibited the painting between 18 March to 1 May 1910, meaning it would have been probably been completed in February or March of that year. Sadly, the artist passed away in September of the same year, making this one of his very last artworks from a long and distinguished career.
Who is the Female Model in The Dream?
An attractive lady by the name of Yadwigha was the model for this painting. She was the artist's mistress in his younger years and clearly had left quite an impression on him, as he chose to include her within this important artwork some years later. The composition features her lying back in a relaxed posture on a divan. She looks out across the rest of the painting to her left.
What was this Painting made from?
The Dream was painted using oil on canvas. Henri Rousseau was an entirely innovative and contemporary artist but chose to use materials which had been prevalent within European art ever since around the time of the Northern Renaissance. It is likely that the oils best suited his bright tones and clear forms which marked his unique approach and so he felt no need to experiment too much with his own materials, such as calling upon tempera or watercolours. Rousseau was entirely self-taught, meaning that he would not have had quite the same grounding in different materials and art techniques that others would have, and so was more willing to stick with oils once he felt entirely comfortable with them.
What Inspired Henri Rousseau to paint The Dream?
Several historical paintings and items of literature have been suggested as possible sources of inspiration for Rousseau's The Dream. Titian's Venus of Urbino and Manet's Olympia are both famous depictions of reclining women and would have been well known to the artist. Some have also suggested that Émile Zola's novel Le Rêve may also have been in his mind when putting this painting together, but no firm conclusions have ever been drawn. Henri is believed to have been courting at the time, not with the subject of this artwork, and so perhaps that encouraged a romantic feel to the content of this piece..
What is the Size of this Painting?
The Dream (Le Rêve) is listed by its current owners, MoMA, as being 298.5cm in width, by 204.5cm in height. It is therefore a fairly large artwork which allows the artist to incorporate a large amount of detail right across the jungle scene, as well as on the portrait of Yadwigha. This perhaps helps the artwork to flourish within modern art galleries, where one can appreciate this piece even from a fair distance, as is often the case with popular and large galleries such as MoMA in New York, USA.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.