Henri Rousseau Tiger in a Tropical Storm

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) 1891
The National Gallery, London

The extraordinary Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) 1891 was Rousseau’s first jungle painting. Exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891, it gained Rousseau his first serious review, from the young painter Félix Vallotton: ‘His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed; it’s the alpha and omega of painting’.

Surprised! appeared at a time of great interest in non-Western civilisations, fed in part by large-scale exhibitions and the popular press. At the 1889 World’s Fair, which celebrated France’s economic and scientific prowess, there were numerous ethnographic displays to represent the riches of her colonies. Rousseau was so impressed that he wrote a play about a visit to the exhibition.

The subject matter of Surprised! was not unusual for its time. Many traditional Academic artists depicted African and Near Eastern exotic subjects, and Eugène Delacroix’s pastel drawing of a lion and tiger on the verge of combat is thought to have been a direct source for this particular Rousseau painting.

However, the uniqueness of Rousseau’s style – the exaggerated scale, simplified forms, and blocks of vibrant colour echoing certain aspects of folk art – provoked mixed reactions. Despite the positive response to the painting from Vallotton, it was over a decade before Rousseau returned to the jungle as a major theme.