Merry Jesters Henri Rousseau Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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In this extraordinarily rich painting produced in 1906, a group of bearded monkeys and an exotic bird peer out in surprise, as if a noise has suddenly disturbed their play. The apes in the foreground huddle together, while a lone monkey in the centre clings a tree trunk in fear.

The bizarre humour of the picture is strangely at odds with the animals' uneasy stares and the frozen stillness of the scene. This is typical of Henri Rousseau’s highly acclaimed later work. In The Merry Jesters the monkeys are depicted in the centre of a lush jungle with a bottle of spilt milk and a back scratcher. The milk bottle and the back scratcher are not only unexpected but man-made, and in this way the painting introduces us to Rousseau’s disconcerting yet often comical crossover between animals and humans.

The artist captures the dreamy luxuriance of the jungle by covering almost the entire canvas with an impenetrable veil of lush vegetation. This tapestry of tropical fronds is painted in luminous colours, and the foliage shimmers as if under stage lights. Rousseau referred to his jungle pictures from the final years of his life as his "Mexican landscapes," and it was once thought that he had actually been to Mexico in the army of Napoleon III. In fact, the flora and fauna in his paintings were based on his visits to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, as well as children’s books and magazines.

Although Rousseau's art was misunderstood by the conservative art world in Paris, he was able to exhibit his work in annual exhibitions organised by the Société des Artistes Indépendants. Despite being extremely well connected, Rousseau never profited from his paintings; however, works like The Dream, The Sleeping Gypsy and Carnival Evening influenced many later artists. The artist passed away on 2nd September 1910 in Paris. His work continued to influence other artists, from Picasso, to Ernst, Léger and the Surrealists.