The Dream Rousseau Painting: Understanding the Masterpiece

The Dream Rousseau Painting is a dreamscape with an accurate depiction of the lush forest in night with the artist’s mistress softly reclining on the couch.

The Dream Rousseau Painting

Imagine you are camping in the wild forests, where the river water shimmers light as it reflects the soft and radiant moonlight. The dark tree trunks contrast with the green clump of bushes, which is home to few animals. While you enjoy the night sightseeing from your camping bag window, you hear the wind piercing the leaves and the creaking sound of the tree branches. The rich earthen smell from the forests is still over your senses, bringing the comfort you always wanted. While you imagine being in this forest, I wanted to confess that I have already been in this one in my dreams. These dreams are easy-going experiences that sometimes feel our mornings with good spirits. We often do not take them into our attention as they are a gift of our subconscious mind. Albeit many artists drew dreams on their canvas, and one such painter who painted forests as a significant subject is Henri Rousseau and the painting we are here to scrutinize, and study is The Dream Rousseau Painting. So let us start moving.

General Information About the Artwork.

1. Artist Statement.

“There are two ways of expressing things; one is to show them crudely, the other is to evoke them artistically.”

Interestingly, one asked Henri,

“Why did you paint a couch in the middle of the jungle?”

In response, he said,

“Because one has a right to paint one’s dreams.”

2. Subject Matter.

The main subject of the Dream (Rousseau) painting is Yadwinga, who was the artist’s mistress. In the middle of a forest, a light-skinned, voluptuous, and round-breasted woman in naked form lies on a couch, reclining through her body curves. Wild animals surround her while a native musician with a black face plays music. While she gazes around the landscape around her: there are animals like elephants, lions, lionesses, birds and monkeys. A pink serpent enters from the bottom, echoing the curves of the lady. We will study the entire painting in our later sections.

Henri Rousseau The Dream

3. Artist.

Born on May 20, 1844, Henri Rousseau was a French Post-Impressionist painter in a primitive manner, painted the composition, The Dream. He started painting in his late 40s at the age of 49 after he left his full-time job to dedicate his remaining life to art. Rousseau was a self-learnt artist, ridiculed by art critiques lifetime. A member of the petit bourgeois, he championed the politics of fraternity and declared himself a patron of Fraforest-inspired, which he often displayed in his paintings. 

His first exhibition was held in 1891, and he received his first serious art review after presenting Tiger in the tropical storm (Surprised).

Surprised by Henri Rousseau

4. Date.

The painting belonged to the year 1910. 

5. Provenance

Henri produced around twenty-six versions of the jungle theme, and it really attributed him with confidence. Now all of them except the painting Surprised were painted in the short period between 1904-10. Notably, after each successive picture, his style became better, and there was an advanced quality of composition and imagination. The Dream included this perfection as the palette included fifty distinct shades of green, according to a colour analyst Ardengo Soffici. 

On 2nd September 1910, Henri died of blood poisoning just after an exhibition of The Dream by Ardengo Soffici, Ambroise Vollard, Serge Fearat, Helene d’Oettingen and others. 

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

7. Technique and Medium.

The Dream (Rousseau) painting has a medium oil on canvas. Now, the art of Henri comes under naive primitive art. The composition instantly sets up an uncanny and dreamy mood. There is a delicacy in the forms of Rousseau’s style, and it has fixed and limited tension between animals and figures with a harmony of colour, binding them with an abstracticism. 

The painting has a summation of qualities with an immense organization of spaces and complex ones. There are at least fifty variations of green alone, which is equalled by the sentiment of the artist. And lastly, there is a heightened form of every symbol with a free intensity. 

ArtistHenri Julien Félix Rousseau
Year Painted1910
MediumOil on canvas
MovementPost-Impressionism and Primitivism
Dimensions204.5 cm × 298.5 cm
WorthNot on sale
Where is it housed?Museum of Modern Art, New York City

As we understand an overview of the artwork, let us move to the next section for an in-depth learning of the canvas.

A Detailed Account of The Dream (Rousseau) Painting.

About the Artist: Henri Rousseau.

Born in Laval, the chief town of the Department of Mayenne in northwest France, Henri Rousseau was a self-taught artist but lacked the studio training of his day. His family wasn’t rich, as his father dealer in tinware, and his mother, Eleonore Guyard, descended from a prominent military family. There are fewer records of the earlier life of Henri, but we know that at eighteen, he was sent to Mexico in the service of the ill-starred Emperor Maximilian as a musician in his band. In 1866, when he returned to France, he demobilized the next year and became a lawyer’s clerk. Soon after, in 1870, he entered an army with the rank of sergeant as the war proceeded. At all these periods, even with the time he has been compelled with different jobs, he just says to himself,

“to follow a career quite different from that to which his artistic tastes invited him.”

French painter Henri Rousseau

And hence when he was forty, he finally retired on a tiny pension and decided to be a professional artist. It was the year 1885. Before the 1800s, there existed no painting of Rousseau. Being a self-taught artist, he was too poor to enrol himself in any art school. He began painting memories of anonymous portraits, flower pieces, little romantic landscapes and folk paintings.

When we learn about the paintings of an artist, we generally see his earliest work displayed. To Rousseau, his earliest compositions had many characteristics like small formalized landscapes with water mills and bridges with a lucidity of colour, and delicate charm in geometry. As he expresses himself, he ‘worked alone without any master but nature and some advice from Gerome and Clement.’

History and Background of the Jungle Painting.

Even though the artwork belonged to the era after post-impressionism, it consisted of the same style. It also displays naive art or primitivism alongside. Not to confuse you, earlier in this article, I briefed you about post-impressionism. But don’t worry, we will cover it again. 

About Post-Impressionism.

It is a French art movement that developed from the last Impressionist exhibition to the birth of Fauvism. This kind of art is an extended version of impressionism while rejecting its limitations. The use of impasto is usual here, along with the introduction of geometry and the use of unnatural colours. 

While naive art often imitates itself for its childlike simplicity and frankness. It depicts the form of outsider art who had little formal training or degree. In the early 20th century, Rousseau was an influential naive artist who Picasso discovered. 

Now, let us check the timeline of Henri Rousseau between 1907 and 1910 so that we exactly know what influenced the artist to paint the composition. 

The period between 1907-10 was the fullest period of Rousseau’s life, and his dreams to gain wide recognition for his artistic profession came true. He was sixty-three when he became the centre of the most advanced group of artists and writers in Paris and was notable in the intellectual group of the world. The painting Snake-Charmer, now in the Louvre, was commissioned by Madame Delaunay. And this painting gained wide acclaim as a result of the Autumn Salon exhibition and was the artist. 

Henri Rousseau holding a brush and sitting around his forest inspired artworks

It was the same years when he later painted The Dream. To understand the chronology of the painting, I am giving you the reference of Max Weber. Max knew about Henri as he knew him intimately. He described his studio as a single room with a large window. The room had a plaster cast of an Egyptian relief, and a portrait of himself and his wife hung over it. Further, it consisted of a hideous statue on a pedestal, a violin, a few chairs and a red sofa. Now, you might be probably thinking, why I am putting these things into the provenance part of The Dream painting. It is because these interiors are immortalized in the canvas of this painting. So whatever furnishings you see in the composition are inspired by where Henry lived. 

Once you know the painting’s background, it is essential to know that he held the artwork exhibition between 18 March and 1 May 1910. On the exhibition, Vollard asked Henri,

“Tell me, M. Rousseau, how did you get so much air to circulate among those trees and the moonlight to look so real?”

To which he replied,

“By observing nature, M. Vollard.”

As the artist prepared for the exhibition, he was enormously pleased and to Apollinaire, he wrote,

“I have just sent off my big picture; everyone likes it. I hope that you are going to employ your literary talents to avenge me for all the insults and injuries I have received.”

And these words, however, were during his end of life as in the September of the same year, he passed away, making The Dream one of the last paintings of his career and life.

Let us move forward to the meaning of The Dream (Rousseau) painting in the artist’s words.

Understanding the Meaning of The Dream by Henri Rousseau.

Before analyzing the terrific artwork, I would like you to read a few lines about the composition,

“Yadwigha dans un beau rêve

S’étant endormie doucement

Entendait les sons d’une musette

Dont jouait un charmeur bien pensant.

Pendant que la lune reflète

Sur les fleuves [or fleurs], les arbres verdoyants,

Les fauves serpents prêtent l’oreille

Aux airs gais de l’instrument”.

which means,

“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”.

Besides, Sylvia Plath, a renowned American poet, accompanied the presence of his artwork through her poem saying,

“Yadwigha… Hearing flutes, you

Dreamed yourself away in the moon’s eye

To a beryl jungle, and dreamed that bright moon-lilies

Nodded their petaled heads around your couch”.

When we read these beautiful lines displaying and introducing you to the artwork, it is easy to understand the analysis of the entire artwork. Let us move on to the most awaited section of the article, which you already know.

Looking At the Subject Matter and Elements.

The canvas of the Dream (Rousseau) painting has a vitality which goes beyond decoration and has a very special mood. The centre attraction of the painting is the reclining nude lady on a sofa with one of her hands stretching towards the wooden backside of the ottoman. She has a pale golden skin tone with blushy pink cheeks. Her curvaceous body looks to the viewer of the painting. The long dark brown hair of the figure falls towards her bare breasts. Of course, there are several animals surrounding her. To the right of the composition, there is a pair of lion and lioness, one looking upon her and the other looking at the viewer. Looking closely at the lion and lioness’s expressions, the female stares at the woman, while the moody male gazes outward. A pink snake moves in the wild bushes in a waving form, giving an abstract curve to the canvas.

Yadwigha in The Dream Rousseau Painting
Subject and elements of The Dream Rousseau Painting

The piper musician soothes the environment through their music. In the background, the branches of the trees have oranges, and a full white moon in the pale blue sky completes the artwork. All the creatures show a peace-loving and harmonical environment around the lady. There are rich trees and leaves with a variety of green shades, toned with yellow and purple hues.

The piper musician in the Dream by Henri Rousseau
Background of the Dream by Henri Rousseau

The Dream (Rousseau) painting depicts the composition in a great way, as the nude lady rests on a couch in the middle of the forest.

An art critic Guillaume Apollinaire said, 

“The picture radiates beauty, that is indisputable. I believe nobody will laugh this year.”

Despite the couch’s negative reviews from critics, when viewed in conjunction with the forest, it looks great. This juxtaposition intrigues the mind and creates a distinct and unique idea of combing elements.

Now that we have covered the fun part, let us move to the next section, which is most interesting. 

Formal Analysis of The Dream Rousseau Painting.

1. Line.

The composition includes vertical lines in the form of long trees, stems of flowers and the strange figure behind the bushes with a piper to convey the vigorous stability in the forests. Looking at the curvacious figure of the nude lady and the snake movement, we see the artist used a circular line as well to showcase fertility and feminity. And lastly, there is the presence of diagonal lines, which I have highlighted well in the canvas.

2. Light and Value.

Talking about the light in the picture, it produces sharp contrasts and light illuminance. There is a presence of gentle gradations through the forest colours, where the far-sighted vegetation has a darker shade compared to the frontal ones. However, the light does not seem disturbing as the lighter and darker hues combinedly give a comforting view.

The Dream by Henri Rousseau Black and White

3. Colour.

The most challenging part is studying colours in this composition, which contains hundreds of shades.

You might be surprised that there are at least 22 shades of green showcasing the jungle foliage. 

The usage of bright orange, yellow, and blue comes from fruits and flowers. In addition, there is the clear white colour of the moon in a light shade of blue. The artwork candidly resembles the tranquillity and peace of the environment through its colours. The yellowish colours for lions with the dark theme from the colour black also contrast expertly with the green colour of the forest. The overall picture compliments the colour usage here. 

Moving on further, let us check the sales of the artwork. 

Art Sale.

The Dream Rousseau painting was originally sold to Ambroise Vollard in February 1910. Sidney Janis, a clothing manufacturer and art collector, purchased it through Knoedler Galleries in New York in January 1934. 

To celebrate the Museum’s 25th anniversary, Janis sold the painting to Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1954. The piece is still on display at MoMA.


Henri Rousseau was definitely a modernist painter with an epic usage of colour shades that Picasso discovered. Although he was sharply criticized by many throughout his life, he was a genius for his naive art form. The painting has an advanced collage style with wild animals and their prey with a goblin texture of the landscape. The entire setting is the intuitive discovery by the artist to represent absolute space, a multiplicity of viewpoints on a single plane, parallel to the Cubism of Picasso and Leger.


1. Henri Rousseau by Daniel Catton Rich.

2. Henri Rousseau, 1844-1910 by Cornelia Stabenow.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted the dream?

Henri Rousseau, a french post-impressionist painter painted The Dream. He depicted a scene where her mistress, Yadwinga is resting on a couch in mid of a forest landscape.

Why did Henri Rousseau paint the dream?

One of Rousseau’s twenty-five jungle paintings, The Dream, was based on his experiences during the early 1860s when he was a member of Napoleon III’s expedition to Mexico to help Emperor Maximilian. In addition, it is a simple dream of his mistress Yadwinga.

Where did Henri Rousseau paint the dream?

It was painted roughly in the year 1910 in February, before he kept an exhibition of the composition between 18 March to 1 May 1910.

What is the theme of the dream by Henri Rousseau?

The Dream by Henri Rousseau is based on the dream, the artist’s mistress Yadwinga saw.

What art movement is the dream?

Post Impressionism and Primitivism.

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