While Rousseau often depicted the savagery of the jungle, he also produced a number of works featuring monkeys that exude a more playful spirit. Rousseau’s monkeys are cheeky rascals, but the paintings themselves are similarly mischievous. Supposedly far from civilisation, the monkeys in The Merry Jesters 1906 play with back-scratchers and a milk bottle, whileTropical Forest with Monkeys 1910 shows two primates out with fishing rods. The sheer oddity of these scenes made one critic wonder if he really had seen a painting like The Merry Jesters, or if he had imagined it. The human appearance of the monkeys was especially unnerving for viewers. While contemporary science insisted on the difference between the ‘savage’ and the ‘civilised’, Rousseau’s paintings seemed to merge the two categories. For avant-garde admirers, such works were a cause for celebration, offering a release from the trappings of conventional behaviour.
The implicit comparison between man and primate becomes clearer in The Football Players 1908, which shares the sense of movement and playfulness of the monkey paintings. The scene is especially joyous, and the characteristic quirks and oddities of the painting only add to the sense of fun.
The theme of play appears again in To Celebrate the Baby 1903. Although the golden-haired child is a classic symbol of innocence, the figure seems bulky and disproportionate, looming like a giant that dwarfs the trees behind it. The jerking marionette suggests a deeper allegorical significance, a grotesque image of adulthood that contrasts with the free and happy child.