The Dream (1910) by Henri Rousseau
Interpretation of Naif Painting (Outsider Art)

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The Dream
By Henri Rousseau.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

The Dream (1910)


Analysis of The Dream
Explanation of Other Modern Paintings


Name: The Dream (Le Reve, Le Songe or Reve exotique) (1910)
Artist: Henri Rousseau "Le Douanier" (1844-1910)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Genre painting
Movement: Outsider art
Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


Like many other naif or primitive artists, Henri Rousseau taught himself how to paint relatively late in life, at about the age of 40. By 1886, encouraged by his friends, he was a regular exhibitor at the Salon des Independants, and in 1893 he retired from the French Customs to become a full-time artist. Oblivious to any influence from other painters and unburdened by any understanding of perspective or anatomy, Rousseau developed his own signature style of modern art - a captivating child-like primitivism with an academy-style smooth finish, - as exemplified by the exotic jungle landscape of The Snake Charmer (1907, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) and The Dream (1910, MOMA), as well as the eerie symbolism of The Sleeping Gypsy (1897). Indeed, his compositions are marked by bold colour, imaginative if not visionary content, and a sparkling freshness whatever the size or subject. Among the admirers of his Art Brut were a number of modern artists, including Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). The Dream was his first work to receive critical acclaim, although it didn't prevent him from dying in poverty some months later, and being buried in a pauper's grave.

Analysis of The Dream by Henri Rousseau

The Dream is one of about twenty-five 'jungle' paintings by Rousseau, which he claimed were based on his personal experiences during the early 1860s when he took part in the expedition which Napoleon III sent out to Mexico to help the Emperor Maximilian. But this was fantasy. In fact, all his jungle scenes were inspired by his visits to the Paris Museum of Natural History and its botannical gardens and hothouses, as well as images taken from popular print culture including magazines like Magasin Pittoresque.



The last of Rousseau's pictures, it depicts a dream experienced by Yadwigha (Jadwiga), Rousseau's Polish mistress from his youth, during which she is woken by music played by a snake charmer. Thus we see a surrealistic portrait of a female nude (Jadwigha), reclining on a French-style divan and pointing towards what appears to be a female native, dressed in a colourful skirt, playing a flute. Both figures are surrounded by a profusion of lush foliage - including lotus flowers and a mass of variegated plant forms - as well as birds, monkeys, lions, an elephant, and a snake. The scene is bathed in moonlight, turning night into day, while the colour scheme incorporates some forty different shades of green, with accents of orange (fruits), aquamarine blue and pink (flowers), yellow (plant fronds), and red (flute-player's skirt).

As usual, Rousseau's freedom from artistic convention allows him to mix domestic furniture with exotic jungle undergrowth, classicism (reclining nude) with modern folk art, all within the most shallow of picture planes. An extraordinarily modern painting with optical links to the multiple perspectives of Cubism as well as the juxtaposed imagery of Surrealism.

First exhibited at the Salon des Independants (March to May 1910), a few months before his death, The Dream was bought by the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), after which it was acquired by the art collector Sidney Janis (1896-1989) in 1934. In 1954, Janis sold it on to Nelson A. Rockefeller, who donated it to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Explanation of Other Modern Paintings

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) by Picasso.
MOMA, New York.

Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912) by Matisse.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico.
Private Collection.

The Drunken Gentleman (1916) by Carlo Carra.
Private Collection.

Soldiers Playing at Cards (1917) by Fernand Leger.
Kroller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo.

The Green Blouse (1919) by Pierre Bonnard.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


• For analysis of other modernist 'outsider' art or primitivist paintings, see: Homepage.

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