The Sleeping Gypsy was created by Henri Rousseau in 1897. The painting depicts a wandering African gypsy who falls asleep beneath a starry moonlit sky. By her side is a mandolin and a vessel of water.
As she lies sleeping, a lion watches over her peacefully. The pale moonlight sharply contrasts with the woman’s rainbow hued striped oriental costume and blanket, all of which contribute to the surrealist quality of the scene. The woman’s exotic djellaba and mandolin are all customary to their respective Asian and European cultures. However, Rousseau decides to blend them both together in his own painting.
The striking depiction of a lion quietly observing a sleeping woman on a moonlit night is one of the most distinguishable artworks of modern times. Rousseau described the subject of The Sleeping Gypsy as follows: “A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her (a vase with drinking water), overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”
Ordinarily, such a painting would automatically be attributed to the Symbolism painting movement, but Rousseau was too unsophisticated and detached from art conventions to be associated with any movement. He was only interested in creating decorative, escapist pictures, which he worked up very slowly using numerous layers of paint. He obtained many of his images from popular magazines, happily mixing different locations and cultures, and showed no desire to learn the finer points of anatomy, perspective or proportions.
This whimsical oil on canvas comprises a strong composition that employs hard lines and flat perspectives to great effect. The Sleeping Gypsy should be viewed merely as a poetic, dream-like image of which the original is immaculately finished, with the paint polished to perfection, and consolidated by a topcoat of varnish.