Henri Rousseau was almost certainly among the thousands who saw this sculpture, depicting a gorilla abducting a woman, at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889. Paris at the end of the nineteenth century was the cultural centre of the world, a hub of scientific and artistic progress. Yet this highpoint of European civilisation also saw a growing fascination with the irrational, the exotic and the savage; a state of contradiction embodied by this sculpture. Its anatomical authenticity reflects the sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet’s detailed study of gorillas at Paris’s Natural History Museum; however, to 21st-century eyes it seems to be as much about sexual fantasy as scientific rationalism.
Rousseau was himself a regular visitor to the Natural History Museum and the ‘Jardin des Plantes’, the zoo and botanical gardens surrounding the museum, where he made his own diligent studies of exotic foliage and stuffed animals. He described how he would lose himself in imaginative reveries inside the glass-houses, invoking that intense dream-like quality that gives his paintings their power.