The Dream by Henri Rousseau – The Interesting Meaning

The Dream by Henri Rousseau painting

Why is this painting called “The Dream” when all it shows is a scene of a jungle in the night with a nude woman lying on a sofa? Why are there so many subjects in the painting? What was Henri Rousseau, the painter of “The Dream” trying to show? Let’s find out. 

“The Dream,” also called “Le Rêve” or “Le Songe” is a painting by the French artist Henri Rousseau and it is also considered the artist’s most successful and popular painting.

The reason why we call it a giant painting is because it is almost 7 x 10 feet in size, which when viewed in person, makes it feel as if you are staring at a window to a jungle. There are so many things about this painting that need explaining. 

About the Painting

“The Dream” is an oil on canvas painting completed in the year 1910 by Henri Rousseau. It is one of the 25 “Jungle” themed paintings by the artist and arguably the most popular one amongst them. 

The painting is 6′ 8½” × 9′ 9½” (204.5 × 298.5 cm) in size and is currently housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Coming what type of painting is “The Dream,” the genre of the painting is debated. Some consider it surrealism while others primitivism, magical realism, etc.

What Going On in the Painting?

There is a lot to unpack in this section. The artist has deliberately over-populated the canvas with so many things and little negative space. You can barely see the sky on top and the full moon hiding behind the leaves. 

The painting shows a nude woman sitting on a divan or sofa in the middle of a lush jungle. She is half awake and is looking toward the other elements of the painting with keen interest. 

On the other side of the painting, you can see two lions, an elephant hidden behind the foliage, and a snake charmer who is playing flute. An orange-colored snake can also be seen, along with two birds and two monkeys on the tree. 

The rest of the canvas is filled with trees and plants with leaves of different shapes. There are some flowers and fruits as well. The canvas is completely filled with these elements to give the appearance of a deep, lush jungle. 

Inspiration for the Painting “The Dream”

Apart from the painting’s scene, there are so many other aspects of this painting that makes it very interesting. Remember that Henri Rousseau never visited a jungle in his entire life. In fact, he never left France!

So the painting’s scene is something that the artist imagined from seeing images of the Jungle, visiting the zoo, etc. In reality, a jungle looks quite boring, and if depicted realistically, the painting would have been boring as well. 

But the painter used his imagination and created a majestic scene of a jungle that feels like a magical place. If you saw a fairy or a gnome or some other fantastical creature, it would not be a surprising thing. 

Let’s look at the woman sitting on the couch. Who is she? We don’t have to speculate. The painter specified who the woman was. The woman lying on the couch is Yadwigha, the artist’s mistress. 

Her posture is also quite interesting. It seems that Rousseau was inspired by paintings such as “Venus of Urbino” and “Olympia” where a nude woman is shown lying in a similar pose. 

Coming to the plants, Rousseau once mentioned that the trees and plants were inspired by the strange plants from exotic lands in the hothouses in Paris. The sight of these plants made the artist feel as if he was in a dream world. 

What Rousseau Wrote About the Painting

It is always great when artists are thoughtful to write what the painting means. It makes the job easier for us, prevents any unnecessary and wrong interpretation of the painting, and people can appreciate the art and vision of the painter even more. 

Rousseau wrote a poem about the scene of the painting, knowing that this artwork is complex and can lead to wrong interpretation and confusion. Here’s the poem explaining the painting. 

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.

The Meaning of the Painting

So now we know that the woman in the painting is having a wonderful, magical dream about being inside a jungle. The scene is a pleasant one, with the snake charmer playing the flute to make the orange snake dance. 

The animals here are all in a good mood, even the lions. Think of this painting as a beautiful, almost surreal dream of waking inside a jungle and you see these wild animals and beautiful birds with the moonlight shining. 

The Art Style 

While the meaning of the painting is exactly what you see on the canvas, it is the art style that makes this painting so unique and special. Rousseau’s style is very distinct and different, and it adds to the effect of this dream painting. 

You can see inspiration from the Cubist art style. The hard and distinct lines are well separated. One can also notice the use of so many shades of green in the painting.

Rousseau has also used specks of bright colors that are opposite of green such as red, orange, and yellow. This makes the painting very lively and intriguing.

Another important thing to note is how flat the painting is. Rousseau has made the painting completely two-dimensional with a total lack of perspective. This makes the painting feel even more “dream-like.”

Historical Context of “The Dream” Painting

The painting’s radical style was the reason it was ridiculed and laughed at by many art critics. They considered the art to be childish and “made without effort.” Despite many prominent figures appreciating the style, it was mostly met with negative responses. 

But here’s the interesting thing; this painting was bought by Pablo Picasso in 1911 who was impressed by the style of the painting. He kept the painting in his private collection and honored the artist by holding a banquet for Rousseau. 

It was then acquired by the then vice-president of the United States, Nelson A. Rockefeller who then donated it to the Museum of Modern Art. And that was all about this painting, from its history to its meaning. 

Also, read: The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau – Meaning